Mrs. Everything: A Novel by Jennifer Weiner

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“This life,” Cal said. “You have to give up a lot, I have family who won’t see me. It’s hard. It’s not for everyone.”

In the beginning, it is older sister  Jo “tall and gangly and everything she did was wrong” and little sister Bethie ” chubbie and cute” a child who “always said exactly the right thing” that complete the makeup of the Kaufman family.  Where Jo is closer to her father, Bethie is Mommie’s perfect darling, a child who doesn’t behave in the unnatural manner her older ‘tom boy’ sister Jo does. It is 1950’s Detroit and their new home is surrounded by families just like them, “birds of a feather” all perfectly flocking together in rhythm and God forbid you are “different.” No one tests their mother more than Josette, who doesn’t mean to be so difficult and really cannot explain why things that come easy to others is so hard for her. She can’t help but be herself, even when she tries to be the good girl her mother desires, catastrophe follows and boy does her mother make sure she knows just how much she fails to be the daughter she wants.

It isn’t only within her family that her nature brushes against societal norms. Friendships with other girls mean more than they should, her wants and desires for her future are thwarted by the times Jo lives in, and will chip away at her dreams of freedom. An athlete, a writer, liberal minded coming of age in a conservative world will whip her into an acceptable shape. Through betrayal of those she loves most, and of course responsibility to her little sister and impossible to please mother, Jo (like countless women before her) will forget herself in order to fit in. Marriage, children… she is finally a good girl, right? The world isn’t ready to accept a woman like her, to let her live freely. It’s not safe to be her true self.

Bethie’s beauty should make her world a tasty confection and guarantee her most fevered dreams come true. Her mother knows she’s meant to be something special one day!  A girl who everyone loves immediately, the perfect lil’ helper, people pleaser, someone whose very nature charms everyone in her orbit, why… what could possibly derail her future? Sometimes, a girl with so much appeal attracts nothing but danger, through no fault of her own. Bethie learns nothing stays sweet in an ugly world, and before long becomes the subversive daughter that Jo once was, refusing to settle in one place nor with a man. There is so much to taste in the forbidden elsewhere! If Josette wants to spend her life being content, tied to convention… well bully for her. No one is going to tame Bethie. Let Jo pretend!

This is a book about women, their options, the opportunities and lack thereof. The shaming when a daughter, mother, sister dares to look beyond the plans other’s have made for her. The disapproval she will encounter when she strikes out on her own, against the will of her mother/father or husband. The ever looming threat of losing your family if you chose anything for yourself that isn’t ‘approved’. The lessening that is expected when one becomes a wife, mother. Before long, you’ve lost yourself. Too it is about the abuse that girls welcome (according to the world, at least) or have to accept for the sake of survival.

The sisters who once had to support each other drift apart, each denying themselves their true natures. Life happens, it brutalizes and punishes in unequal measure. From an early loss both find themselves sacrificing their dreams and even innocence. It is a story about sisterhood, motherhood and in a sense, self-hood and how every choice or the transgressions of others, and the demands the world puts on us makes us who we are, for better or worse. The question is, can we come back to the self we once buried in order to be accepted?

What is more heartbreaking than thinking about the deaths we suffer, internally, of our many selves? The times Josette and Bethie came of age in were full of strife and civil unrest. Children who questioned their parents ways, be it a mild irritation such as why the fuss of dressing like some cookie cutter family, or the heavy, senseless, shameful weight of their parents racism weren’t exactly the ideal child. Children didn’t question the ways of the adult world, period. Step out of line, and you will be tarred and feathered. You were not free to love where you wanted, with so many constraints, this is why free love (social, sexual movement) was born. Many people bucked convention. Yet children eventually want to please, to have their mother/father’s love, sadly at the expense of their real selves. Other little boys and girls, they get too much unwanted love from some adults. It’s hard to write about this novel without giving away everything that happens, but it truly is a novel full of heartbreak and hope. When it’s your turn to be a parent, despite promising yourself you will do better than your mother/father, you can bet a child will introduce you to your weaker self. Life happens, and comes full circle and at heart it is a tale of two sisters that find their way back to each other.

Publication Date: June 11, 2019  Out Tomorrow!

Atria Books

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White Dancing Elephants: Stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar

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She’s probably my age, I realize suddenly, early forties, but she has not spent her life on mistakes.

This collection of stories by Chaya Bhuvaneswar is about more than being an immigrant or one’s ethnicity, it is also about feminism and LBGTQ women. From the start, the reader is on an emotional journey, living as long as it takes to read a story on the character’s breath. It begins with White Dancing Elephants, where a woman shares the aftermath of her miscarriage, gut wrenching and mind numbing, a trauma to think of what could have been, should have been. “Before my last morning with you, my love, I didn’t know rage.” Loss is a rage, a dead future. The writing doesn’t lessen in intensity, in The Story of the Woman Who Fell in Love With Death, there is a different sort of longing, a young boy relates a fictional tale with the loss of his own sister, the girl whom is never mentioned, and lives in the hidden photograph in his father’s sock drawer. Is she really a runaway, just what are the family’s dirty secrets? There is a line in the story that must express how many boys/men feel “Girls expected him to prove to them what boys were like: shallow, callous, laughing animals that could smell irresistible.” That in a book full of stories to make the unseen world of the female life visible, living particularly in the skin of women of color, in such an ugly world full of abuse and slurs, the author too was able to expose a vulnerability in a young male really touched me. Someone who wanted to be a boy good enough to rescue his own sister, heart wrenching! The body, how the female body is her own fault for every horror the world can think up to torture. It’s always her fault, isn’t it? How brutal and true the final line in the story (I won’t share it here, read it). I had a lump in my throat, thinking of what it means to be female in our world, thinking about my own daughter.

There are affairs and betrayals, fissures in friendship,illness, stories of sexual abuse, even if it’s just hinted at. Denial of one’s sexuality for the sake of family tradition, even if it means returning to India and ‘putting oneself in the ground’, burying oneself, rejecting our genuine identity and love for what’s expected. One of my favorites is Asha in Allston, and the ‘mannequin with hardware’ who definitely isn’t a HER! The horror in feeling jealous of perfection while trapped in a real failing human body, robbed of every future dream. I think I related in the sense that though there is no MALIN in my life, we women have a form of perfection in our face 24/7, and when illness enters… well… it’s that much more evident, of course in the story she lives with the ‘ideal female’ thanks to her husband’s job and genius. Tormented by the uselessness of her own body, impossible not to compare herself to this non-entity! Rage to turns to flame!

It’s an engaging provocative collection, the stories aren’t all about women as victims either. Sometimes they do selfish things, we’re imperfect creatures, as much as men, we just have to pay more for being human. As said in the life you save isn’t your own, “wrong decisions had all bloomed like seeds”. It got me to thinking about how much control we have, about decisions and chance how we often go against our own desires to please others, and about how much heavier choices are for females. Worse, about all the little girls in the world robbed of any choices at all, the orphan handler was pretty intense, dark.

A new voice in fiction, yes read her debut!

WINNER, DZANC BOOKS SHORT STORY COLLECTION PRIZE
WINNER, NARRATIVE MAGAZINE “TOP FIVE STORIES OF THE WEEK” FOR 2017

Finalist for the 2019 PEN American Robert Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection

Published October 2018

Dzanc Books

 

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir by T Kira Madden

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I wanted love the size of a fist. Something I could hold, something hot knuckled and alive.

Growing up as a privileged child isn’t always as glorious as the rest of us think, and of course no one wants to hear you complain because you have all that wealth, the private schools, horses, fantastic shoes but as a biracial child coming of age in Boca Raton, Florida -T Kira Madden struggles mightily. Born as a love child, early childhood begins with a mannequin father whose heft has more presence and love than her own flesh and blood daddy. Her beautiful Chinese Hawaiian mother knows her best and as single mother does everything she can to protect them, the mannequin is her mother’s idea used as a stand in for her her father’s sporadic visits to their mice infested apartment. Her father who feels like a giant stranger. A successful older man who already has an established family shifts sails and decides to live with T Kira and her mother, so begins the fierce memoir.

When her parents aren’t fighting or in drunken, drug-fueled fights her dad is passed out on the couch in a stupor, life is mad obsession over her show horses, an uncle who is unlucky in love, massive humiliation during junior high, hunger to fit in, and the gut wrenching loss of innocence that isn’t confronted until years later. Her father in their life means overflowing ashtrays, they’re rich but live off cheap food, life going off the hinges as much as the wooden doors in the house after one of his rages. Like this, she still loves him. Then there are secrets, so many secrets through generations and her father isn’t the only one with things to hide. As her family grows so too does an understanding of all the things she didn’t see while her eyes were smeared with youth. There is cousin Cindy and her beauty, which isn’t always a prelude to a charmed life. When T Kira ‘finds her own pretty’, she goes wild with her tribe of fatherless girls. The exotic features that once made her prey to kids in school with racial slurs becomes ‘sexy’ among her girls. Parties, drugs, sexual exploration, losing people and herself until the girl from Boca becomes a New York woman. In college she allows herself deeper love and intimacy with girls and faces what it means to be queer or not.

There are moments of such honesty it makes you wince. She lets too much happen to her, living at times on autopilot, as young people hungry for love and attention do. Terrible things happen because of her trusting naivete. Her parents didn’t shelter her from all the adult situations were tangled i, and it costs her. We are shaped in childhood, but it doesn’t have to be our ruin. There is love between T Kira and her father, but the confusion of living in the storms of his moods, his violence  towards her mother, threatening her as well, wrecks her home. In his absence her mother destroys herself with drugs, and her father abandons them, leaving T Kira to be the caregiver, addiction in a parent a force someone so young shouldn’t have to contend with. Children are meant to be the needy ones. It wasn’t always nightmarish, she has sweet memories of her father taking her to her first baseball game, their trip to Vegas when she was five, but there is so much distance between them. She tells us at seventeen of New York “I’ve moved here to be closer to my dad. I want to walk his streets, eat his favorite pastrami, try on a new relationship with him.”  She loses her father, every remnant of him is ash, except the memories.

“Ghosts are better than nothing. Ghosts move. They want things. To haunt each other, then, is a way for my mother and I to keep him. He is more than a voice in the walls., a Ouija board movement, an iridescent cloud in the dark; he can exist here, inside us, through possession. We do our best to play the roles. Our bodies are not big enough.” 

     Falling in love with someone, I think, is at least like that.”

 

An innocuous Christmas present after her father’s death pries her mother’s past open wide. There may be more love out there than T Kira could have ever hoped for. The end of the memoir was moving and heartbreaking. It’s an unfinished story, because T Kira has so much living left, and so the family grows. It’s not just about the ache of missing ones father while he is alive and dead, her mother is a larger than life presence too, especially in the later years.

Others have called this gritty, and it is, it has its funny moments, particularly in her blind youth, because no matter how cool people claim they were, there was an awkward desperate phase we can all relate to. You want to jump into the pages and stop her from embarrassing herself as much as save T Kira from dangerous decisions.  Rich doesn’t mean happy, being wealthy isn’t protection against the dirt of the adult world. It is a story of surviving your childhood, and coming to terms with your parents flaws while also recognizing they were people before they had you, people who made immense sacrifices and mistakes. It is holding on to the love you find in the memories, even those we revise.

Publication Date: March 5, 2019

Bloomsbury USA

 

Tin Man: A Novel by Sarah Winman

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I said that Ellis and I talked of things in the moment. I said we just existed in each other’s presence, because that’s how it felt. Often in silence. And to a child it was good silence, because nothing felt misconstrued. There was a safety to our friendship, I said. We just fit, I remember saying.

This is such a beautiful tender story about love, denial, obstacles and the interference of life itself. Ellis and Michael first became friends when they were twelve-year-old boys. What first love is more powerful than that of intense friendship? What is more sacred than finding a kindred of your own choosing? Boys too tender for their bruising fathers, for Michael it is evident he is the wrong sort of boy to his father’s thinking later in the novel when he recalls a memory of his yearning for the mother who left him, and how his father reacts to finding him cozying up to the things she left behind. Such boys were abhorrent to fathers. When Michael’s father dies, he comes to Oxford to live with his grandmother Mabel, with a suitcase full of books, fancying himself a poet he meets Ellis for the first time. A budding artist, whose father has other plans for his son’s future, Ellis shares his inner most being with Michael. Dora, Ellis’s mother, is quick to form a bond with Michael, who so badly needs to fill the space his mother left. When she becomes ill, the boys oversee her remaining days, and both make a promise about Ellis and his future, one that his father is hellbent on destroying.

Caught in intimacy while mourning the loss of his mother, Ellis’s father forces him into leaving school and taking up factory work. Without his loving mother there to defend her fragile son, to make sure he stays in school, he succumbs to defeat and his father’s bullying. Michael is always at his side, the two take a trip to France, steal time for a while and make memories that equally warm and torment them for life. I kept thinking of a famous quote by John Greenleaf Whittier, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been”.  Many things might have been, and the things that happened were on borrowed time.

One moment the young men are in a sort of paradise, as close to one another as their own skin just the two of them, but then there is three when Annie enters the scene. Annie marries Ellis, but for a time they are a party of three. Nothing gets past Annie, and you can’t help but see why Ellis loved her and Michael too. Her love and sense of self was strong enough to give Ellis his private, quiet stolen moments with his best friend Michael. This is a book of hearts running over with love and compassion, while also containing the brutality of others who refuse to accept and love people for who and what they are. It stays with you after you put the book down. Both are lost in reverie throughout the years, questioning and doubting each other- loneliness a constant companion. Michael builds a life of his own, disappears from Ellis but as the story unfolds we know why. He kept a devastating secret too.

Though there is grief, there is beauty and love shining through the darkness. Loneliness can’t be escaped, and from the very beginning Winman guts you in the small quiet rebellion of Ellis’s mother and the painting she wins in a raffle, not just that she chose the prize despite her husbands wants, but the strength it gave her. It comes to mean so much, that painting. It’s a quiet novel, and the big moments all fester in the heart of the things we are denied. There is loss, but there will always be loss when love is factored in. As much as I adored Ellis and Michael, my breath catches for Annie, a truly beautiful soul.

No one guts me quite like Sarah Winman, When God Was A Rabbit broke my heart and I read it back in 2011, I never wrote a review, must remedy that. Not surprised to feel broken again.

Publication Date: May 15, 2018

Penguin Group  Putnam

 

Lost In The Beehive: A Novel by Michele-Young Stone

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“You’ll get better at this place. They’re going to make you like everybody else.”

Nothing scares people more than someone who strays from the ‘norm’ and nothing is more horrifying than loved ones trying to fix you, to make you just like ‘everybody else’. The bees have always come to Gloria Ricci, she is touched by them, and they tell her things in their own way, always near for pivotal moments in her life.  Sometimes sad, terrible things unwelcome things like death, and others a presence When she meets Isobel, she feels alive for the first time, to understand intimate things about herself, feelings and emotions that feel natural but are damned by others. When they are caught in an intimate forbidden kiss, the police are involved. It is decided that Belmont is the place to cure her of her illness, homosexuality. It is easy to feel disgust towards her parents, but mind you this was 1965 and there is a lot of fear for their child fitting in, that having this ‘unnatural predilection’ will make life hard, make her a target. If others were successfully cured, then why not their daughter? Surely, it is in her best interest.

At the institute she must hash out every intimate detail, and is shamed, told she is a sinner, the devil’s instrument. The only joy is meeting the beautiful boy Sheffield “Sheff” Schoeffler, who breaks the rules with a simple smile directed at Gloria, who needs the gesture badly. Sheff has the same illness as her, in fact he’s a repeat offender and his humor is the alliance she should stay away from but can’t resist. Fast to learn the rules and speak the words Mrs. Dupree wants to hear during their sessions, it isn’t long before she is allowed to return home, to be a good straight citizen.

There is a sweet tender moment between Gloria and her mother once she is home again that made me warm to her, to forgive her in a sense. I think as parents fear can sometimes make us think we’re acting in our children’s best interest. Most of us just want to make their lives easy, thinking about the time period of the 1960’s, it would be natural to be scared knowing  that others see homosexuality as an abomination, and the terrible things people do to ‘teach lessons’ to people who are different. I imagine it’s scary still, decades later.

Most of us know people, some in our own family, who were shamed into hiding their sexuality. Homosexuality was something you didn’t admit to, a very hidden lifestyle. It brought shame upon your family, if you were lucky you were loved and your family didn’t disown you. But certainly you weren’t free to show affection even if you were able to find love and live your life with a same sexed partner. Even in being open you still had to hide signs of affection, too shocking for society, criminal even. These therapies that claim to be cures, seem more to be forced suppression than anything else.

When Sheff encourages her to leave for Greenwich Village, a far more accepting place, they find like-minded people. It’s a city where she can have anything she wants, even according to a fortune-teller. For once, both Sheff and Gloria are free to be their natural selves. But New York isn’t all thrills and funky jazz clubs, it has its darker side and Sheff’s ‘job’ troubles her, easy money or not. Her Peter Pan “Sheff” doesn’t ever want to grow up and it isn’t long before their New York dream descends into darkness.

Something horrific happens and then part two brings us into the future, it is aptly titled with a quote from Jack Kerouac. “This is America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.” Gloria collapsed, is a former shell of who she was becoming. The bees aren’t done with her, even if she is ‘living’. She tries for a normal life, meets one Jacob Blount and marries him but then there is Betty. Her Peter Pan, “Sheff”  never leaves her either, not entirely. All she wants is a home, but where is the right abode for her and with whom? Jack has his own history, his own past, and demons. The ending is bittersweet but what gutted me was the author’s acknowledgements and her inspiration for Sheffield.   Without giving any more of the story away, I will say I wait to see books coming out by Stone, I loved Above Us Only Sky and this book is just as unique and meaningful. I can’t wait to hear what others think! I read this months ago and seeing as how my Goodreads buddy Elyse commented how much she loved the novel, I hit myself in the forehead and realized I needed to post a review!

Out tomorrow April 10, 2018

Simon & Schuster