Very strong, highly readable new fiction from Jennifer Weiner. She’s tackling a very heavy and intense subject here (as she often is) — in this case, a prescription drug addiction that pulls high-achieving suburban mom Allison into a nightmare she never imagined. Weiner does a great job of making Allison’s slide into addiction absolutely real and believable, treating the subject with the seriousness it deserves, while still maintaining the self-aware, snarky voice we expect of a Weiner heroine. The humour here is often dark, but it’s real, and there aren’t easy, happily-ever-after solutions to Allison’s problems. I found this a quick, absorbing and satisfying read, and I’d definitely recommend it.
Category Archives: Fiction — general
This is a great concept for a new novel by Rainbow Rowell. Unlike her last two novels, which focus on teenaged characters, Landline brings us into the middle of a mature relationship between two people who have been married for several years, have two children together, and find themselves at a crossroads in their relationship.
The improbably-named Georgie McCool is a TV comedy writer with two young children and a husband, Neal, who is very good at being a stay-at-home dad but not entirely happy with that role. The conflict between career success and family life is rarely more believably drawn than it is at the beginning of this novel: Georgie is about to get the big break that she’s been waiting for since college, just as her marriage may be falling apart. Her troubled relationship with Neal is in sharp contrast to the easy relationship she’s always had with her writing partner, Seth. Seth and Georgie are about to achieve the dream they’ve shared for years — a show of their own — but Georgie’s personal crisis throws everything into chaos as Neal takes the kids and goes back to his mom’s house for Christmas, leaving Georgie behind.
This is where the book’s “fantasy” twist occurs — Georgie, who also retreats to her mom’s house in the middle of the crisis, discovers an old landline phone that connects her, not to the present-day Neal who won’t answer her cellphone calls or texts, but to the Neal of many years ago, the man she fell in love with. She has a direct line to the past — but what should she do with it?
It’s an intriguing story that (to me, anyway) centred around the question: what really matters, being in love with someone, or wanting the same kind of life? Georgie knows she loves Neal, and she’s pretty sure he used to love her. But do they want the same things? To me, this is one of the most important questions there is, both in life and in fiction; it’s a major theme in my own latest novel, and I was interested in how a writer as insightful as Rowell would explore it.
Georgie hopes that talking to past-Neal will help her figure this out, but what I found a little frustrating (in a very engaging and readable book, by the way!) is that as soon as she becomes obsessed with solving her marital problems, her work situation — which is on a deadline so tight that she had to miss celebrating Christmas with her family — falls by the wayside. Georgie just stops working on or caring about the show, and though I believed she wanted to get Neal back, I didn’t for one second believe that the woman we’d been introduced to at the beginning of the novel — the comedy writer who has dreamed her entire life of writing her own show — would drop that ambition like a hot potato for love. The whole conflict that drives the story is that Georgie wants Hollywood success just as much as she wants Neal, and he’s not OK with being one of her two great loves. For her to lose interest in her dream project and stop showing up to work during those crucial days seemed to undercut that basic conflict, and it made me care a little less about the ending than I thought I would when the story started.
I still enjoyed the book, and other readers might not feel the same way I did about it, but it is definitely below both Fangirl and Eleanor and Park on my Rainbow Rowell bookshelf, because I simply didn’t feel the story was as well-executed as either of those other two books were.
There’s little doubt that “quirky” is the word most often applied by reviewers to Lydia Netzer’s How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky; I used the word myself in reviewing her debut novel Shine Shine Shine. Like her first novel, Toledo is a love story with unexpected twists and turns, one that’s hard to categorize but easy to enjoy.
The central characters, George and Irene, are both astronomers/physicists/whatever you call those really really smart people who know all about black holes and the universe and stuff. While Irene is dedicated to pure science, George’s days are punctuated by mystical visions of ancient gods and goddesses, and he’s searching for a soulmate he almost remembers, but can never quite find. Irene might just be that soulmate — but is their connection too perfect? Is it fate, destiny, or science?
As with Shine Shine Shine, Toledo asks (but does not necessarily answer) a lot of difficult philosophical questions inside a not-so-simple love story. Along with the science there are elements of magic realism (a major plot point hinges on the reader accepting that two people can have a meaningful conversation and transmit actual factual information during a shared lucid dream) and, of course, lots of gray areas where we can’t quite be sure what’s science and what’s magic — as with George’s visions, in addition to the lucid dreams.
I have two quibbles with this otherwise enjoyable book, one of which is the author’s fault and one of which may not be. When you create a cast of very quirky characters (and there are some extremely quirky ones in this book) and have them meeting up and doing improbable things, it’s often hard to make the dialogue sound believable. While this novel succeeds brilliantly in some scenes, in others it ends up sounding clunky and unrealistic. (That said, I realize this is a matter of opinion like everything in reading, because I read another review that criticized the dialogue, and the passage they used to illustrate the bad dialogue was one of the ones that I thought was most natural and believable in the whole book — in that passage I could hear the characters speaking out loud, which I couldn’t always).
The second problem I had was that a very significant plot point, which was revealed carefully and delicately in flashback scenes throughout the story, was given away in the book’s description in my online bookstore (and in every review I’ve read, so probably on the physical book jacket also). It’s a detail that I thought would have had a lot more impact and been much more interesting if the reader had been allowed to figure it out as the characters did; I wish I hadn’t gone into the story knowing it. You’ll notice I’ve carefully avoided revealing that detail here, a caution which will be completely meaningless if you read any other summary of this book online, but I’m doing what I can here.
If you like an offbeat love story that has its feet on the ground but its head well up in the clouds, you should pick up How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky.
As I said in my last review, this is one of two novels that I picked up and read within a day of each other because I couldn’t resist the fact that both were set in bookstores. Like Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, Rachman’s new novel starts off with a somewhat quirky, reserved protagonist who runs a failing bookstore in an isolated community, trying to peddle paper-and-ink books in a world gone increasingly digital.
There the similarity ends, however, since The Storied Life takes place largely within or near A.J. Fikry’s Island Books bookstore, while the World’s End bookstore owned by Tooly Zylberberg in Rise and Fall is only the jumping-off place for her adventures. World’s End, described so lovingly by the author that it sounds like everyone’s dream bookstore, is where this eccentric woman in her early thirties has wound up in the year 2011, after a turbulent childhood and youth. But it’s also the place Tooly leaves early in the novel on a quest to understand her own past, and for much of the story it’s doubtful whether she, or the narrative, will ever come back to the quiet Welsh village and its bookstore.
For a novel that starts in a small, out-of-the-way place, Rise and Fall quickly turns into a sprawling epic, taking Tooly and the reader to Bangkok, New York, Italy, and Ireland, among other places. It also jumps back and forth in time: shortly after meeting the adult Tooly in her Welsh bookstore, the reader meets ten-year-old Tooly in 1988, travelling from city to city in the company of a man she calls only “Paul.” Then we’re in 1999, and twenty-one-year-old Tooly is living in New York City, again with a man who might or might not be her father, an older Russian immigrant named Humphrey. Two other quasi-parental figures appear in this stage of her life: the chaotic Sarah, whose appearances cause Tooly nothing but trouble, and the enigmatic Venn, whom she hero-worships. As for Paul, the father-figure of her childhood, he has disappeared from the story.
None of these people makes an appearance in the adult Tooly’s life: she seems cut off from any notion of family or personal history, until a chance online encounter with an old boyfriend results in a message telling her to come to New York because she needs to do something about her “father.” What father? Does Tooly even have parents? Who are the adults who more-or-less raised her, what’s her connection to them, and why has she left them all behind? These are the questions that propel the story forward (always jumping back and forth between the three timelines) and the questions that kept me turning pages, trying to unravel the mysteries of Tooly’s past.
I loved this novel; I found Tooly herself a compelling character, I was interested by all the other characters — her four somewhat parent-figures, her bookstore employee Fogg, her ex-boyfriend Duncan and his family — and, most of all, intrigued by the links and connections that were gradually revealed as the story unfolded. Tooly’s personal story is set against the background of the changing world that all of us over 3o have lived through — the end of the Cold War, the cycles of economic boom and bust, the rise of the digital age — and these changes form a vivid background to the story of a woman whose girlhood unfolded across several continents, but who winds up at the World’s End, trying to create a quiet life among old books. If you dislike stories that jump back and forth in time, or stories where you have to spend time figuring out who all the characters are, you’ll hate this novel, but if not, I highly recommend it.
It’s hard for a book lover to resist a novel set in a bookstore, which was my justification for buying both this novel and Tom Rachman’s The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, which I’ll review next. Although, since I bought both as e-books, I’m really part of the problem that plagues A.J. Fikry’s Island Books, rather than part of the solution.
A man clinging to a bricks-and-mortar bookstore as the rest of the world shifts away from reading paper books — a man clinging to memories of his dead wife as the rest of the world moves forward — that’s A. J. Fikry. He appears initially as a cantakerous, grumpy, difficult-to-know man, a young widower locked in his grief and unwilling to engage with anyone in the world outside. But this novel can easily be read as a twenty-first century retelling of George Eliot’s Silas Marner: the lonely man, isolated from the community, is first shattered by the theft of his most valuable possession, then drawn back into life by the arrival of a small child abandoned in his shop.
It’s this latter fact — the arrival of toddler Maya in A.J.’s life — that’s most difficult to update from the original story, because while it was quite plausible in nineteenth-century England that an abandoned child might just end up living with the person whose house she wandered into, that obviously wouldn’t run as smoothly today, what with child welfare and adoption laws and stuff. Zevin skims over the legalities of this pretty lightly, doing the bare minimum necessary to make it just slightly believable that A.J. Fikry might end up raising this child. It helps if you suspend your disbelief a little at this point.
The Storied Life is a simple book telling a simple tale. It’s not much different, in fact, from the plot of many a romance novel (though the story takes us well past the happily-ever-after into a bittersweet and very realistic ending). The writing is lovely, and the bookstore setting combined with the little pieces of short-story analysis at the beginning of each chapter, ostensibly written by A.J. as a reading guide for his daughter, remind us that this is as much a story about stories, and power they have in our lives, as it is about A.J. Fikry and the people whose lives touch his.
Also, it’s a lot more fun to read than Silas Marner. And if you haven’t read Silas Marner, just trust me on that one.