Finding Dorothy: A Novel by Elizabeth Letts

40265841.jpg

“Oh,” Maud said. “I don’t know the first thing about theater. How does one go about becoming a theatrical man?”

“Well, I wasn’t fit for anything else,” Frank answered, his eyes crinkling up into a smile. “Not a whit of business sense, I’m afraid- unless that business is magic.” 

Maud Gage “understood that she has been anointed- she must not let her mother down.”  Matilda, her mother, had fought for women to be seen as equals to men, for women to have the right to earn college degrees (the only hope for a better future) something she herself was denied. When Maud’s older sister Julia cannot fulfill her progressive mother’s expectations due to health difficulties, Maud must take her place. At Sage  (Sage Hall was built to house females at Cornell back in 1875) she befriends Josie Baum, and realizes that her ‘eccentricities’ that at home were encouraged make her feel like a complete misfit at Cornell. Women may have more doors open to them than her mother ever did, but aren’t meant to be engaging, are expected to fade into the wallpaper. For all the talk of equal rights, women are still expected to be ‘like a houseplant’ more for pretty decoration, to be less engaging, to bend to a man’s will and be a rapt audience who fawns over the male pontificating in the classroom rather than voicing their views. If they don’t land a husband their only other option, educated or not, is to return back home to their parents, where they are managed instead by their father or mother. It is through her friend Josie Baum that she meets her future husband, when Josie invites her over to her to a party at her house over Christmas break.  Josie’s cousin Frank, a man of the theater (actor, director, stage manager of the small traveling  Baum Theater Company) who will go on to write the much-loved children’s classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Frank, whose name starts with F. F, the letter that during a seance with her group of friends at the college appeared on the board, whose name her future husband begins with, if you believe that sort of thing and of course… of course she doesn’t. Does she?

The joy of this novel is how Maud and others served as Frank’s inspiration, from a fear of scarecrows to a sad, lonely niece, her special doll and the dress that inspired Dorothy’s iconic gingham one. Anyone who has ever watched Dorothy will warm while reading about the birth of Oz. It wasn’t all success for Maud, whom watches her own sister’s poor choice of the heart and every sorrow and hardship that follows. Her own path now tied to Frank Baum’s, she must bust free from the confines of her mother’s plans, marrying a man whose life is spent on the road with his theater. When she has a child, he must find a career to support Maud and their infant son, working as a salesman and trying to ignore his ‘flights of fancy’. They experience loss, Maud’s severe illness during her second pregnancy,  changes in career for Frank, family strain and deep grief between she and her sister Julia while living in the vastness of Dakota territory.

Future Maud is a widow, nearing 80 and on the set of the film The Wizard of Oz. Here she meets and befriends Judy Garland, developing tender feelings for the lonely, young woman whose overbearing stage manager mother doesn’t seem to protect enough. Bullied by everyone from the director to her co-stars, spies watching her diet like a hawk, young Judy Garland spends a lot of time on the verge of a breakdown, her insecurities fueled by on set cruelties but finds a nurturing presence in Maud, as well as insider information on the part she wants to play to perfection. Who understands Dorothy better than Baum’s own wife, inspiration behind the beloved characters? Too, Maud will fight to keep one of the now most famous songs Somewhere Over the Rainbow from being cut from the film, as much as fight to see young Judy isn’t smacked around, literally. This ‘old woman’ will not be pushed aside, she has made a promise to her husband’s memory and herself that this film must do justice to Frank’s tale, not diminish it! Having been raised by a mother who was quite the suffragette, it seems like destiny that Maud witnesses the binding of Judy’s developed body, to make her appear younger, after all Dorothy was a little girl in the book and the attempts to deny her proper nutrition of course Maud sneaks tasty snacks to feed Judy herself! Such control a far cry from the rights her mother demanded, so far into the future and women still being handled, unrealistic expectations forced upon them. Maud, despite giving up her degree for marriage wasn’t one to retreat, her marriage to Frank dealt her many hardships that even the most educated, progressive woman would break under. They always had love and respect, and she is due credit as much as Frank’s own diligence, for his success. Maud was a woman who managed their family finances, raised their two sons while Frank’s career often pulled him away, who pushed her husband to realize his dreams.

While the relationship between Maud and Judy Garland is tender, the past is the heartbeat of this novel. I don’t think I will ever watch the film without thinking of all the sorrows that touched the Baum’s. There is a lot of heartbreak, the story isn’t all rainbows and good witches but that’s not to say there isn’t a lot of happiness too. Beautiful, I didn’t expect to like this novel as much as I did. It’s a very rich story!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Random House Publishing

Ballantine Books

 

 

Advertisements

The Age of Light: A Novel by Whitney Scharer

39340193.jpg

Or Lee could tell the real story: the one where she loved a man and he loved her, but in the end they took everything from each other- who can say who was more destroyed.

Man Ray was an American visual artist who spent much of his career in Paris, France and was a part of the Dada and Surrealist movement but this is about his love affair with Lee Miller. Lee Miller was an American who began as a fashion model in the 1920’s, her passion was photography leading her to become a serious photojournalist in her own right for Vogue during World War II. Certainly photographing horrific carnage, Nazi horrors is a far cry from her days of posing nude, her wild nights of partying and lovemaking while she was working in Paris as Man Ray’s assistant and lover. Being a man’s muse wasn’t ever going to be enough for Lee, whose beauty betrayed a talent that could rival the men she worked for.  Man was seventeen years Lee Miller’s senior, photographed her obsessively, hungered to understand her beyond her flawless, ‘ideal’ beauty. Her beauty was overwhelming, blinding, a thing most people cannot look past. One must imagine she was a fascinating woman, Man Ray photographed some of the most famous people of our time and yet couldn’t get enough of Lee. Their love blazed for years, and in that time both betrayed each other in love, and in career (Man failing to credit her in famous work).

Their love seems to move in phases, sometimes he seems like her father, sometimes like her child, at other times an erotic lover hungry for all sorts of playful exploration involving pushing the edge of each other’s boundaries.  Speaking of fathers, ruminating about the relationship between Lee Miller and her own father Theodore, one can understand where the rumors of possible sexual abuse by him was born. It’s no secret she was sexually abused (raped) when she was only 7 years old while in the care of a family friend, contracting gonorrhea, a downright horrific disease for a child to suffer but that nude photos followed that event, that her own father snapped of her “as art”, can’t help but leave one feeling disturbed. Their relationship was strange, he seemed at times more a lover than a father, which comes into play in the novel when Man finally meets him. Her beauty and body didn’t belong to her in the early years, it’s hard to understand how free and open she was about nudity and sexuality after such a traumatic violation. Maybe being raised as her father’s model made her body become an instrument for her? We are the sum total of our experiences, whether we like it or not, we can let the horrible trauma we suffer be our ruin or we can decide to own our destiny. She had some serious grit! This wasn’t a woman who was going to cower in the presence of any Master.

Man Ray’s own sexuality was a curious thing for the times, rumors swirled about him, naturally he used his love of Miller as a shield. Certainly that didn’t endear him to her, nor the ways he tried to control and manage her. She was a young woman, not quite resigned to a life of staying in and playing at the ‘happy couple’ he wanted to be, she hungered for experiences that would fuel her artist’s mind. There is a line in the novel, “Their gaze made her into someone she didn’t want to be”, and Man was guilty of molding her into some ideal too. There was always a distance within her, she loves him and questions that love, sometimes you can feel a hesitation in giving all of herself to him. She has made this happen, she was the master of her own ship, famously telling him she was to be his student, mind you he wasn’t taking any students.She wasn’t a woman who waited for things to happen, she pursued her desires whether it was for flesh or photographs. Such ambition and commitment is difficult for any of us, but for a woman in the 1930’s, wildly admirable. She needed open love, needed to fall into bed with whom she pleased, separating love from sex when it came to different people. Not such an anomaly really, plenty of people are into open love, and her youth and beauty certainly provided her a smorgasbord of opportunity and temptation, is just doesn’t bode well in a relationship with a man who wants promises.  Man was possessive and jealous, he began to need her and desperation is never attractive to the young. She has her warning early in the relationship upon meeting another of his muses, a former lover Kiki (sultry performer and dancer) who causes a jealous scene. Man tells her his former relationship was simmering in jealousies.

As with any love, the cracks begin to appear. Lee’s fresh ideas are in contrast to Man’s own lack thereof, then comes their perfecting a technique called solarization, based on her discovery, but it is the bell jar photo series that is at the heart of their relationship’s decline. Masters can’t let their students eclipse them completely, right? It’s his studio, his name… Throughout the novel he wants to possess and consume her, crack her skull open, know all her secrets and dissect her because he never seems to reach the center. Man becomes a vulnerable mess, a beggar, desperate that she never leaves him. He loves her, they have fierce passion for each other, but sometimes love that starts as a fire can fizzle out, and all that’s left is ash, smoke.

The story flows between the past and the future where Lee Miller is working as a photojournalist for Vogue, where some of her most famous, shocking  work was produced, during the Second World War. The woman she became seems nothing like the beautiful muse of the past, but she was always there inside, waiting to break free. Then she reinvented herself into a wife, Lady Penrose. The attic becomes the keeper of her past. What a hell of a story! I am going to read her son’s (Antony Penrose) memoir about his ‘unconventional’ mother, The Lives of Lee Miller.

This book has quite a bit of sexuality, of course it does, this is Paris in the 1930’s following a Bohemian set. It’s all sex, art, and libération! Much of Man Ray and Lee Miller’s relationship was about their sexual need for each other as much as their creative life together, it is said Man couldn’t get enough of her. This really is a brilliant book!

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Little, Brown and Company

The Peacock Feast: A Novel by Lisa Gornick

40121931.jpg

Most of Prudence’s past is shrouded with the shapes of events no longer distinct, or faded with the emotional color gone.

Prudence O’Connor is three weeks past her one hundred and first birthday when she receives a call from a stranger named Grace, whose grandfather Randall O’Connor, she believes, is Prudence’s long absent brother. Prudence and Randall’s Irish immigrant parents worked as servants for Louis C. Tiffany, artist and designer best known for his stained “Tiffany” glass. When her brother flees after hitting their drunk father, promising to write, they receive one letter that he is living with Charlie, a boy who had ‘got himself out of this hell hole’ for San Francisco. Prudence spends her days visiting her father on the job, in awe of the beautiful work all about the home, drawing pictures of all that delights her. Her passion endears her to a Lady, Mrs. Dorothy Burlingham whose fond memories of Prudence’s father gives her pause, for the father she knows, mean when with drink, seems nothing like the man she describes, one who kindly listens to a sad girl ‘prattle on’ about her woes.

The title, The Peacock Feast is based on an event that Tiffany hosted for ‘men of genius’; painters, publishers, architects, transported by private train from New York to Oyster Bay ‘to view the spring flowers on his estate’. Serving Peacock and suckling pig, Tiffany’s daughters followed by his grandchildren were part of the procession dressed in Grecian gowns. The eccentricities of the rich don’t stop there, after all he once dynamited the breakwater to prevent public access to his beach. Prudence remembers, though two years old at the time, watching from behind a pillar seeing Dorothy as part of the procession, miserable, unhappy. Also of Laurelton Hall she recalls her memory of Dorothy’s wedding to Robert Burlingham, as she watched lifted in her father’s arms. How could she have guessed that she would one day become daughter-in-law to invited guests, far above her own parent’s social class. With no children of her own, discovering that she has a grand-niece reveals all the mystery behind everything that happened in her brother’s life decades past when he left home for good at the tender age of fourteen, never to be seen again.

The story encompasses a massive chunk of time, and though both siblings did well for themselves, tragedy followed them. Strange that now, at her lives end, all of Prudence’s questions will finally be answered. Grace is a twin, she informs Prudence, her brother Garcia and she were left on their grandfather’s doorstep, their drug addicted father, Leo unable to be still long enough to care for his own children. At fifteen Leo ‘turned wild’, the year was 1963. He met Jacie, and fell in love hard, it isn’t long before she is pregnant. Their mother suffering her own mental health issues, never shows up to take her children in hand. With the help of housekeeper Angela, Randall has no option but to raise Leo’s children. Grace and Garcia learn their grandfather’s story of survival, including enduring the great depression. Too, Grace comes to unravel what happened to drive her once promising, bright father to self-destruction. That love can be suffocating, that fear can make you cling so hard that it can kill it, may well be the force that came between Leo and Randall.

Grace works as a hospice nurse, seeing the most humbling and heartbreaking losses people suffer due to illness, disease and age. Here she finds Prudence on the edge of death too, and it seems death is a close relative in her own family. Prudence regrets so much about her own life, having ‘done little harm,’ she has to admit she’s ‘done little good’ either. Once accused of extortion after her mother received payments from her father’s fall and death, it is a lucky thing with the ‘milk train’ coming to a stop that she has worked hard on her own steam. Thanks to the scholarship she earned, and the recommendation of her teacher provided at the School of Fine and Applied Art, she finds herself with a job offer. She begins to work as an assistant to one Harriet Masters, working more as a ‘personal shopper’ for rich ladies than designing beautiful enchanting creations. It is through this less than fulfilling job she meets Carlton, who makes the connection between her and Dorothy Burlingham, who was so fond of the gardener’s daughter at her family home that she delivered a watercolor to her, Prudence. The ‘refined man’ falls in love with her, Carlton her first lover. When she falls pregnant, he makes a demand of her, that will remain one of her biggest acts of cowardice ever.

Grace and Prudence have in common their unending love for their siblings.

The novel goes into Freud, beginning with Dorothy’s connection to the family, psychiatric hospitals, prison, open land, exposes the vast divide between social classes, but it’s the explosion on that beach so long ago, that Prudence witnessed, felt rock her,  that echoes through time until secrets break free. Memory is a slippery eel, Prudence remembers more than most at her ripe old age, but there are shadows over one of the biggest incidents of her life, one she hasn’t been allowed to remember.

It is a heavy read, a story about how family embraces and breaks you. People that disappear sometimes have a stronger hold on you than what is present. Yes, read it.

Publication Date: February 5, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Sarah Crichton

The Night Tiger: A Novel by Yangsze Choo

39396865

If I’d been named something feminie and delicate like “Precious Jade” or “Fragrant Lily”, things might have turned out differently.

Set in 1930’s colonial Malaysia, Yangsze Choo has written a novel rich in Maylayan folklore, superstition, tradition involving ghosts who interact with the living, a were-tiger on the prowl and intensely realistic dreams. The characters very names are steeped with meaning in the five Confucian Virtues, too.  Houseboy Ren, 11 years old promises his dying master, Dr. MacFarlane that he will find his missing finger, long ago amputated, and bury with his body. The man’s soul cannot rest unless his body is intact, but there are only 49 soul days total for Ren to complete his mission.

Numbers are lucky or unlucky in Chinese culture, Ji Lin has just hit the 44 day mark in her shameful, secret, second job as a dance hall girl at the May Flower Dance Hall, advertised as “instructors” but covertly entertaining men. A job Ji Lin takes to honor her mother’s mahjong debts, hoping her cold stepfather never finds discovers. Working as an apprentice in a dress shop for her mother’s friend Mrs.Tham has been her salvation, yet could never earn Ji Lin enough money, not when most of her payment is made in learning the skill and covering her boarding cost (living in the dressing room). On that unlucky day, the 44th mark, a patron of the dance hall gifts her with a shriveled finger in a glass bottle only to turn up dead the next day! Is it a curse of some sort? His aunt certainly doesn’t want it back, despite claiming it was his ‘good luck charm’. If it’s so lucky, why does she seem horrified by the sight of it?  Ji Lin must discover where it comes from, it’s true owner.

Upon one of her promised visit to her mother in Falim, she finds her stepbrother Shin home from the hospital in Batu where he has a scholarship studying medicine. Further education is closed to her, despite her keen intelligence, as much as marriage to Ming, whom she has loved for a long time. Her life is weighted by bad luck, it seems. Her mother, a beautiful fragile woman remarried after her father’s death to a tin ore dealer widower with a son. With ‘an eye for beauty‘ her mother was one of the few people that could turn the hard man’s eyes soft. Never much interested in Ji Lin, to his own son he is abusive and cruel, making the home anything but a warm, close one. Despite this, Ji Lin and Shin have a unique relationship. Ji Lin searches for the finger’s owner with Shin’s help, siblings who share the same birthday (though not blood related) passing themselves off now as a couple. Under this guise, Ji Lin will find herself tied to Ren as well. What about the boy in her strange dreams, who talks about his brother? In the village where Ren works under a new Master, William, people are turning up dead. All signs point to an animal,  a leopard or a tiger until upon further investigation peculiarities are discovered upon the corpse of a woman (Ambika), the absence of blood despite puncture wounds. Is it a mythical creature killing the locals, or a murderer? Why? Deeming it a suspicious death doesn’t bode well for William who has his own secret ties to the woman. Once the investigator starts digging, as he will, they will discover William’s association to her. The locals are bound to fuel gossip, that it was a “Keramet” (sacred beast). William must maintain his composure. Ren is losing days  he sorely needs to honor his old master’s dying request, working for William. Soon permitted a few days of leave to visit Dr. MacFarlane’s grave, he must use his time wisely and find the finger, which is nowhere near. The tiger, though, occupies his mind as much as William’s, terrified it could it be his old master’s tormented soul in animal form. Ren is a fascinating character in his own right, a twin with a special connection to his brother, there remains a bond that surpasses the limits of this world. With his brother Yi’s death that “beacon” is still shining, but will it guide him in his quest, dim as it’s become?

The characters connections grow stronger, at times dangerously so. There are an untold amount of secrets kept from strangers, family members and even from one’s own self. This novel tackles several subjects such as culture and class but Ji Lin’s desire to have a career, to further her education especially being a female that must fight for what for males are given naturally makes this novel far richer. There is love, but Ji Lin isn’t going to be a swooning character, she is the hero in so many interactions, to my way of thinking. There are admirable qualities in both she and her stepbrother Shin. Being a male he can find his way in the world far easier than Ji Lin, but he has been cowed and brutalized by his father for so long, it’s amazing he has the strength to succeed, that with such an example, he has tenderness inside and cares about Ji Lin’s safety and happiness. Family situations can be limiting, and when the story begins everything seems unlucky and impossible for Ji Lin, but she never gives up. She doesn’t fully undertand her own heart, but will explore love in the most unexpected places while on her journey.

Love, Magic Realism/Supernatural occurences, dreams, spirits, traditions, death, murder… I can’t imagine a reader out there that would be disappointed. There isn’t one moment in this novel that drags, engaging from the first page to the last. Yes, read it!

Publication Date: February 12, 2019

Flatiron Books

Brides in the Sky: Stories and A Novella by Cary Holladay

40154416

They couldn’t get the winter out of their lungs, was how Kate thought of her parents’ deaths.

The collection of stories begins with the tale of eighteen-year old Kate and her sister Olivia, twenty. Shocked by the grief of having lost their parents, now tied to land they must learn to farm on their own, either that are get hitched. With a mean harvest, they soon meet two young men, brothers Martin and Andrew heading out West for the promise of gold or better farming. Before long, change arrives as the sisters tie their fate to the men. A journey that will change everything between them, shape their futures. The perils they face on the Oregon trail will force both Kate and Olivia to find strength, when faced with darkness they never could have foreseen.

In the story Shades, Natalie takes a fancy to little Warren and takes him for a ride, ending up with her sorority sisters during rush week. “She was too beautiful and scandalous” and maybe a little criminal. Is she babysitting him? Comanche Queen begs the question, can you really ever go home? 1860, Cynthia Ann Parker is being rescued from her captive, once kidnapped by Comanche Indians when she was only nine-years old, now one of the Chief’s wives, mother to his infant child. After living and learning the ways of the Comanche, now her people too, what will happen when she returns to the world of the white man? Why is she enraged by her saviors? Women’s lives are shaped by luck, good and bad. There are choices that can ruin a life or save it, illnesses that can take children, violence, unwelcome touches and desirous ones. Through the pages of history a woman can disappear or live to ripe old age but never untouched by the times. There is the story with Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s sweetheart, and her admission of the “wonderful feeling of being chosen” and too she tells of the end that such excitement must come to. The tale end, her great grand-daughter crying, holding her hand and “she grabbed my hand and held on, like I could go back and change things.” Wow! Gut punch.

The best of the stories is A Thousand Stings and I was happy to end the collection immersed in the sister’s lives. Coming of age, chasing after the handsome Ray, the summer of love stirring things up when the preacher in their town begins growing his hair and nails long, strumming his guitar, sweet on a young thing while his wife and daughter are away on a trip. Scandalous! Times are changing as much as the sisters. Their mother’s moods, usually predictable sometimes seem worn out from mothering, tired for all that is to come with her three girls.  “It is a cumulative exhaustion she feels, a crushing sense of responsibility.” The story is focused more on Shirley than the other sisters, Patty and Diana but each of the sisters are fully developed characters, as is their mother. Shirley is the watcher, “on guard against harm” of the family. She is the eyes, she knows “when to just listen” too. You forget, as you age, what it’s like a to be so young, dealing with your ever-changing body and only half understanding the adult world, or your own siblings. With Patty, the need to fit in with the girls her own age, to have the perfect party, all that longing for things go right, and how we fear being embarrassed by making the wrong move or our mothers. There is a lot of story in their everyday actions, if you pay attention. The ending is adorable, the rain, the shampoo! It’s the letting go, a release, a ‘forgetting your troubles’ and stealing happiness, a sisterhood of freedom. I would have loved a full novel about these girls and their mother alone! I stayed up just to finish their story. This is an author I will be watching!

Publication Date: January 14, 2019

Ohio University Press

Swallow Press

 

 

The Murmur of Bees: A Novel by Sofia Segovia, Simon Bruni (Translator)

42306076

“Nana. What else do you have there?”

Then the bundle burst into wails and frenetic movements.

“He’s hungry, boy,” said Nana Reja as she carried on with her constant swaying.

“May I see?”

As he unrolled the shawl, Francisco and his men at last saw what Nana had in her arms: a baby.

Their horror made them step back. Some of them crossed themselves.

An abandoned, disfigured baby boy mysteriously protected by a living blanket of bees is rescued by Nana Reja in a small Mexican town, October 1910. The woman as old and weathered as a tree, with a long, exhausting life a servitude behind her, has chosen to live out the rest of her days in one spot in a rocking chair outside the storage sheds on the Hacienda Amistead. Her past shed as wet nurse and caregiver for so many children that it’s hard to remember her own baby, so long departed from this world, it’s a miracle that Reja heard the abandoned child’s cries from under a bridge, so far away. It is ominous, unnatural! With fierce determination burning fire in her old heart, she refuses to budge in her plan and thus changes the course of the Morales family when she brings the ‘monstrous’ Siminopio infant home, demanding he is baptized despite the ugly, hateful whispering of the village that the boy is a bad omen. To some, like Francisco’s bitter employee Anselmo Espiricueta, he is “the devil”, will be the downfall of them all. Others are ashamed of their first reaction as they come to care for the strange child.

Francisco and Beatriz adopt Siminopio, whose bees beat within him as strongly as his own heart, guiding and protecting both he and the Morales family as he grows under their care. Soon there is war in their Northern Mexico, men of wealth are a prime target and with pretty young daughters, Francisco knows his girls must be sent away. With the war’s army wanting land, and taking his crops, he has time for his family now like never before and wonders if buying land is an answer.He begins to believe Siminopio and his bees are important to his family, for surely there is a reason he came. He will see that he remains unharmed. Over time the people who are a part of or near the Morales house come to get used to the boy, his deformity less terrifying, his affinity for nature making him a sweet boy one could even feel affection for. Unable to communicate due to his deformity, people underestimate his keen intelligence, his ability to see in others what most people overlook. It is not without sorrow that he lives his life in step with his bees, wishing with all his might he could sing or speak, express himself in ways most take for granted, but it is not to be.

It isn’t a story solely about Siminopio though, every character has their story told, like Beatriz and her youthful longing for a good, solid man for a husband  and finds the best partner in Francisco, so much luckier than other women of the times. But revolutions and epidemics have a long reach, she will endure as she always has, just like the times after the tragic loss of her own father, in years to come. She clings to the past, she is a loyal wife and mother but the fear of giving up her family lands, starting over in an unknown land, shucking off all the old traditions for a new way is not something she wants to entertain. Then comes the fever, and it comes for Siminopio.

Influenza and the Mexican Revolution rip through every character in this novel and no one is unscathed. When fortune takes a bad turn and illness befalls the people, there isn’t time to properly grieve. Survival swamps sorrow, when death is hungry and pity becomes a luxury, because you are all under the same threat. Soon there are more dying or dead than alive but through the stink of death, a miracle gives the people hope, even if the doctor doesn’t believe in such things. The Morales family line is safe, and they owe it to Siminiopio’s fever and Francsico’s swift thinking, abandoning Linares and it’s people just in time. This decision is their salvation, but also inflames an enemy.

It is a story of  one family’s evolution and knowing when to let go , even if it means abandoning the old ways, it is about seeing past your own nose, understanding that fear can cloud your judgement and that beauty and salvation are sometimes found in the strangest of places, and people. It is a window into how animosity is often easier to nurture than accepting  the nature of your own failings, as we see with the envious Anselmo. Tired of waiting for good fortune to smile upon him, disgusted with Francisco’s benevolence, with ‘hand outs’ and making due, working land that will never be his that seems to be taken over by orange groves, helping only the Morales wealth grow while his own life is consumed by loss, he devises a scheme of his own, nurturing too the hatred he feels for the ‘devil’ Siminopio.  It is a story of love, war, illness, nature, revenge and bees. There is magical realism with Siminopio and his beloved bees, but this is more historical fiction. There are many voices telling the tale, a lot of story to sort through but worth the effort. There is beautiful writing and wisdom within, I particularly delighted at the chapter about houses, how they “die when they are no longer fed the energy of their owners.” How houses leave echoes in us, as we leave echoes in them. The invisibility of old age, the ghosts of the past that visit us as memories, even the horrors of time, it’s all written so beautifully.

Publication Date: April 16, 2019

AmazonCrossing

Lake Union Publishing

Unsheltered: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver

37959904

“I’m out of the habit. I’ve been trying not to want. Just, you know, as an endeavor, like quitting smoking.”

Willa Knox is living the life that many people are today, hitting middle age and caring for ailing parents, or in-laws, housing their adult children with grandkids in tow, wondering where all their money went, losing jobs despite years of dedication and loyalty. In Willa’s case, she is the designated ‘crises handler’ and it worked fine for years, with her mother to help rally behind her but now she is gone. Iano has been the free spirit in the marriage, after more than 30 years she can’t just expect his romantic, fun side to suddenly turn serious, despite being overwhelmed by everything that seems to have gone wrong. It is time, however, for her make everyone face the reality of the crumbling innards of their lives and the home in Vineland, New Jersey she’s inherited from her aunt. There is nothing romantic about this money pit. She cannot do this without everyone pitching in.

Her plan to relay the bad news is met with even more, her son Zeke is on the phone with sad news of his own, now the family must make room for him and his infant son. He is devastated by the new reality of his life, a shocking turn for the worse, Willa cannot let him be swallowed up by it all. Feeling herself like a worn out mother, she spends her nights and days trying to help her grandson, Aldus get on some sleep schedule while giving her son the space he needs. On the verge of tears herself, was it really this hard mothering a wailing infant when she was a young mother,  her advanced age proves motherhood is exhausting now. It’s becoming a full house not to mention a ranting Greek, her elderly father-in-law on oxygen, declining but still ticking, loudly! He’s actually pretty funny as a character, but some of us know all too well in reality such people are a right pain in the arse! Her daughter Tig, also lives at home at twenty-six and couldn’t be any different from her brother. Always free-spirited, Tig surprised Willa by returning home out of the blue one day. This after a year of no news, and there isn’t even time to ask what happened between her and the man she was with because more rotten luck hits Willa between the eyes.  On the tide of her feisty daughter’s return came the news of the college’s closure where Iano worked, and with it the house they were living in.

Iano isn’t making enough to hold her family or home up. The bills have become a paper mountain, one that the measly pay can’t hope to conquer. Her freelance work is more embarrassment than help. For once, Tig has a job while her more successful brother Zeke doesn’t, which she can’t help but point out, but Zeke does have a plan. Of course the two are political opposites too, so insert fiery conversations within the family, when good old Iano isn’t throwing in his knowledge and old grandpa’s inflammatory views. They are beginning to feel the burn of their decline, problems with insurance, not enough money to keep their heads above water, something has to change. They have done everything right in life, and look how that is turning out!

If Willa can get help restoring her home then things could look brighter, because they certainly can’t afford the numerous repairs.  But first, she has to find out if there is any truth that one Mary Treat, a well-known scientist in her own right and Darwin’s friend and advocate, ever lived in her home. This could be of interest to the Historical  Preservation Society, and be of great support in getting the help they need!

Who she discovers instead is Thatcher Greenwood, a scientist and teacher whom ruffled the feathers of Landis and his community for trying to teach Darwin’s theory of evolution. Naturally this is in direct conflict with their belief  in God, and their own leader Landis whom they follow blindly, despite any sort of evidence that exposes said beliefs as false. I think you could insert a president’s name if you’re so inclined, at least I imagine the author does. It is the early days of marriage too between Thatcher and his wife Rose but despite her evident beauty and charms, it is Treat who is like-minded, whose peculiar behavior (counting ants, studying nature) Rose sees as a ridiculous, unwifely spectacle and Thatcher finds enigmatic. A friendship grows between them. His morality comes in direct conflict with his marriage and their future (dependant on Landis) when something shocking occurs and he has to decide whether to tell the truth or lie to keep Rose’s social dreams a reality.

Going between different time periods, both share the same house, that is crumbling. Both Thatcher and Willa are falling apart as well. What are people themselves if not houses, innards and all? Both are at the mercy of the political winds of their time.

I am a fan of Kingsolver’s earlier novels, and while this is different from my favorites, it has its strengths. She always writes beautifully, so I find myself highlighting passages, but I am not sure everyone will relate to this one. For one thing, many people are tired of conflict in political views, we just can’t escape it, not in our homes nor in our books. It’s evident here, in both time periods: family, the state of healthcare, youth, age, racism, greed, science vs religion, nature, environmental destruction, the changing state of marriage… well… It’s obvious characters remain bull-headed in their beliefs despite evidence to the contrary, which seems to be speaking in a round about way as to how people are now.

It will depress younger people, but Willa’s struggles are all too familiar to many of us. There are periods, if you live long enough, where life just keeps dumping on you. It’s magnified if the ‘climate’ of our times is pitting brother against brother, or…er… sister against sister… Doing things right aren’t a guarantee, because we are entitled to nothing, friends. So try to breathe, even if your house is caving in, what else can you do anyway? Really there aren’t any ‘right’ solutions even in this novel. It did feel like I was sitting down and listening to someone who hates the current state of things, her political leanings, which I am not always adverse to, it’s what writers do, share their views, but sometimes you want to escape and right now everyone is shouting over each other already. In all honesty you cannot really tune out, because everyone is already carrying on about it all, on tv, in our homes, on the street, at the store, in waiting rooms, between bathroom stalls, you get it…  Well written but I can’t deny that I am tired hearing the same thing over and over. I already know what everyone is so angry about, every aspect, I don’t live under a rock. But if you feel “Unsheltered” and in a daze about where this thing you call life is rolling, open this book and commiserate with Willa.

I enjoyed reading about naturalist Mary Treat though, what fun a book about her alone would be!

Publication Date: October 16, 2018

Harper