I’ve always struggled with Dickens a bit. My first tries at reading him, when I was young, were not successful — I always got bogged down in his Victorian-I-got-paid-by-the-word verbiage. Later, I read and learned to appreciate a few Dickens novels, though I wouldn’t call him one of my favourite authors. But lately, because of a conversation about the musical Oliver, I got interested in re-reading Oliver Twist, mainly because of the prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold character Nancy. I found it much more readable and enjoyable than I remembered, and was slightly mortified by how I was suckered in by the most blatant examples of sentimentality in the book. What didn’t delight me so much was the equally blatant anti-Semitism. I knew the character of the Jewish thief Fagin was considered an anti-Semitic stereotype, but I had forgotten how broad and offensive the caricature was and how Fagin was referred to as “the Jew” or “the old Jew” multiple times in every scene. Yes, Dickens was a man of his time and all that, but even for his time this is pretty egregious, and it definitely got in the way of my enjoyment of the book. That said, Nancy is still a fascinating character, and I haven’t stopped thinking about her. Maybe I’ll have to write a little Dickensian fan-fiction….
Category Archives: Fiction — general
The Imperfectionists is not so much a novel as a collection of linked short stories, bound together by the place where all the characters work: an American-owned English-language newspaper in Rome. Each chapter focuses on a different character’s personal story, spanning the decades from the founding of the paper in the 1950s up to the dying days of print newspapers in the new millennium. Some stories and characters were more compelling than others; the vividly-created world of the newspaper and those who worked there was well done, and overall it was an interesting read, especially as the reader catches glimpses of the characters we’ve previously read about, as minor characters in other people’s stories — that sort of multiple-perspective thing is always so interesting.
That said, I found this a pretty depressing book — I don’t require novels to be full of chirpy good spirits, but it is nice to finish a book feeling that there is some hope for the human condition, and The Imperfectionists was not that kind of book. Not only are all the characters engaged in what most of them recognize as a failing industry, but most of them are also pretty unpleasant people (with a few exceptions) , and there is not (that I can recall call) one happy, supportive or successful relationship in the whole crew. Marriages crumble, lovers betray, friends don’t really care for one another. People are awful. Beautifully depicted, with keen insight and wonderful use of language — but mostly still pretty awful.
This was the one contemporary novel I read in the midst of a sea of historical fiction while on my spring vacation. I found it vivid and really compelling — moreso than the previous book I’d read by the same author. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was good, but for me, Young Jane Young was a can’t-put-down kind of novel, and I burned through it less than a day (of course, I was on vacation).
It tells the story of Jane Young, who had another life and another identity before she adopted that bland name in a small New England town. She was once Aviva, a college-aged intern for a state politician who became embroiled in a Clinton/Lewinsky style sex scandal — and, just like Monica Lewinsky, she learned that the young female intern was the one who bore most of the public shaming and hate for the affair. It’s enough to make a girl cut all ties with her past, change her name and career, and move to a different part of the country to start over.
The story is told in several parts from the viewpoints of four women, all of them engaging characters — Jane/Aviva herself, her teenaged daughter Ruby, her mother Rachel, and the congressman’s cheated-on wife Embeth, each of whom gets to share her own perspective on the events and their aftermath. Finally, the story takes us back in time to when the affair actually happened, shifting not into first- but into second-person voice and telling twenty-year-old Aviva’s story as if it were a choose-your-own adventure novel (but in each case, you only get to read about the choices she actually makes — the one that leads to her life falling apart). I didn’t expect this part of the story to unfold in this style, but it was surprisingly effective and compelling.
This is a novel about making mistakes, surviving, and recreating yourself — and it also takes a hard look at the way we judge women and men differently in the wake of highly-publicized scandals like the fictional one in this novel.
This novel starts with a tragedy — the disappearance of a teenaged girl, 16-year-old Lydia Lee. The suspense in the story does not derive from our wanting to find out Lydia’s fate — though the characters don’t know for awhile what has happened to her, the reader is told on page one that Lydia is dead. Rather, the mystery to be unravelled is not whether Lydia died or even, really how — though that’s a mystery too, for awhile. What drives the reader through this novel and keeps the pages turning is why Lydia died. The police quickly decide her death is a suicide, but is it? Lydia seems to have been a bright, capable, well-loved high achiever from a stable and happy family. What led her to a situation where she would either take her own life, or run away and put herself in jeopardy that might end in murder? As the story unfolds, we learn that almost every aspect of what people believe about Lydia is a lie — as is much of what appears to be true about her family. Everything I Never Told You is, just as the title suggests, about the things we don’t tell — even to the ones we love. Every member of the Lee family is guarding secrets; some of those secrets might have led to Lydia’s death. This is a novel about parents and children, about hopes and dreams, about prejudice and being an outsider. It’s about how the things we don’t tell can destroy us. It’s beautifully written and very compelling.