Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Inside by Alix Ohlin

This is one of the best books I've read in a long time - as a finalist for the Giller Prize, it was much better than some of the winners I've read.  The book is structured in an interesting way.  The chapters are written primarily from the point of view of three different characters and take place in three different years - though they all intersect at some point.  The first character is Grace, a therapist in Montreal in 1996.  She is skiing on the mountain and comes across the victim of a failed suicide attempt, Tug.  She calls 911, saves his life and eventually they enter into a relationship though he is never completely healed.  Only one chapter is from Tug's perspective - in Rwanda in 1994 - allowing us to gain insight into his psychological pain.

The second major character is Anne.  We meet her as a troubled teenager in 1996 when she is Grace's patient.  However her chapters take place primarily in 2002 in NY and LA.  She is a struggling actress constantly on the run from the pain in her past (which brought her to Grace in the first place).  Her life is strange - she takes in two homeless runaways, flirts with lesbianism, succeeds then fails in television and we never find out for sure if she reconnects with her family.

The third character is Grace's ex-husband, Mitch.  His chapters are the most current - they take place in Iqaluit and Montreal in 2006.  He is also a therapist who has been in a dissatisfying relationship with a woman and her autistic son so travels to Iqaluit to escape.  While there, his girlfriend finds someone else and he is haunted by a patient who he is unable to reach.  He returns to Montreal and happens upon Grace who has just been in a car accident and we discover now has a 10 year old daughter.  He works his way into their lives by helping her with household chores as she recovers from her accident.  The state of their relationship at the very end is not really resolved - which feels very realistic.

I loved the writing of this book - though the jumping back and forth in time and perspective could be confusing, it flows masterfully.  It also keeps you interested, you are both anxious to see how some early matters resolve and curious about how present circumstances arose so happy to go back in time to have the blanks filled in.  It's a pleasure to spend time with such well developed and very human characters.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

I found the first person point of view a bit tedious at times - though perhaps that was by design.  Nora, "The Woman Upstairs" describes herself as the unmarried, childless, 40 something school teacher who everybody likes but nobody really notices.  As a young woman she dreamed of being an artist but based in part on her mother's advice never to become dependent she takes the more practical route of becoming a third grade teacher.  She first goes to art school, become engaged but breaks the engagement and nurses her mother through Lou Gehrig's disease.  Now she lives on her own, teaches school, visits her aging father and spinster aunt and has occasional meetings with her lesbian best friend and her family.  That is until she meets the Shahids - her student Reza, his mother, Sirena and his father Skandar.  They are in Boston temporarily as Skandar is lecturing at Harvard.  Nora befriends and eventually worships Sirena who is of Italian extraction but worked in the Paris art world until her posting to Boston.  Together they rent a studio and Sirena tries to draw Nora back into art while getting her assistance on her own project - the creation of a life size Wonderland (of Alice fame).  Nora falls in love with Sirena - so babysits for Reza, does her menial labour and hangs on her every bit of praise.  She is also envious of her as she falls for both Reza and Skandar too even having a brief physical encounter with Skandar.  Nora always questions whether she means as much to the Shahids as they do to her, especially after they leave Boston and only have infrequent e-mail conversations (though Nora does get Google alerts of their every move).  Five years later she visits them in Paris only to discover that Sirena used her in her art installation in a very personal and humiliating way - thus realizing that she meant very little to the family after all.  So Nora returns to being the woman upstairs.

I didn't love the book, parts were slow and Nora's naiveté was frustrating - but it wasn't terrible either.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Long Weekend Reads

The Best of Us by Sarah Pekkanen

I was drawn to this book as the author was described as similar in style to Jennifer Weiner.  While I enjoyed the book, as far as easy weekend read go, I would not say the author's intelligent humour or character development was on par with Weiner's.  In this book 4 old friends from college travel to Jamaica to celebrate one of their birthdays.  The "birthday boy" was clearly the loveable nerd in college who had befriended the three women.  His wife plans the elaborate party to show off his wealth (and hers) but her party is almost ruined for her by the illness of her severely handicapped sister, whose handicap she has minimized for her husband.  The three women are interesting - one is the overwrought  mother of four young children who is accompanied by her caveman of a husband who she is still in love with despite her extreme stress.  The second is struggling with recently learning she may have inherited a fatal disease from her birth father (she's adopted).  She keeps it secret except from the birthday boy who reveals he was in love with her in college - bringing them closer together, but when she is almost swept away by a hurricane she realizes how much her easy going husband does care about her.  The last member of the group is about to be divorced from her doctor husband who left her for the proverbial younger nurse.  She is there to prove she is still young enough to attract even younger men - when her husband phones begging for another chance.  She sets what she believes is an impossible demand for him to come to Jamaica the next day - which he does.  Thus the four couples end up weathering a hurricane in a boarded up house on the coast - and learning about themselves and each other in the process.

Tapestry of Fortunes by Elizabeth Berg

This easy to read novel centres on Cecilia (or Cece) who is a single, motivational speaker dissatisfied with her own life after her best friend dies of cancer.  At the urging of her widowed mother, who is embarking on a new relationship of her own, she sells her house and moves into a rental home with three other women - Lise, the home's owner who is a divorced doctor constantly at odds with her 20 year old daughter; Joni, a sous chef who struggles under the thumb of a mean-spirited boss and Renie, a lesbian who admits (early on but still a spoiler alert) that she gave up a baby as a teenager.  The four women quickly bond and decide to go on a road trip to confront their pasts - Cece to reunite with an old flame who has been living in the south Pacific; Lise to meet up with her ex-husband to try to figure out what to do about their daughter; and Renie to find the baby (now young woman) who she gave up for adoption.  (Joni and the big dog are just along for the ride).  While not a lot happens, it's interesting to see how the women bond and how much Cece learns about her life once she takes a break from giving everybody else advice.

Family Pictures by Jane Green

Sylvie lives in California with her daughter and her second husband (her first died) to whom she seems happily married though her husband travels to New York for half of every month.  Maggie lives in Connecticut on the outskirts of New York City with her three children and her handsome, and rich husband, who spends half his time travelling.  Sylvie was raised by an abusive French mother who has been injured in a car accident which makes her even less pleasant.  She plants seeds of doubt in Sylvie about the state of her marriage - which Sylvie works hard to ignore.  She is unable, however, to ignore the mounting evidence of her daughter's eating disorder (which may also have been fuelled by her grandmother's insensitive comments about her weight).  In an effort to please her daughter, Sylvie allows her to travel to New York with a friend, without telling her stepfather who would not approve.  There she befriends Maggie's daughter and when she visits her house in Connecticut a terrible secret is revealed.  I won't spoil the book by telling the secret here though it is fairly easy to guess early on.  The remainder of the book deals with the fallout for Sylvie, Maggie and their families.  I read this in one day - it's by no means great literature but it's an entertaining read.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

The latest novel by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout was an interesting read.  What I particularly liked was how it kept switching points of view - from the two Burgess boys, Jim and Bob, to Jim's wife, Bob's ex-wife, the Burgess sister...

The Burgess's were a small town Vermont family.  Jim and Bob both became lawyers and "escaped" to New York though Jim was a high profile criminal trial lawyer while Bob did appeal work for the underprivileged.  Jim made a name for himself successfully defending a famous musician (who was likely guilty) and married a wealthy Connecticut woman.  They had three children who have now moved on to college.  Bob could not take the stress of trial work so moved to appeals and was unable to make his marriage or subsequent relationships work so lives on his own in an apartment his brother refers to as a dormitory.  Both brothers are forced back to their home town when their nephew, the only child of their divorced sister, is accused of tossing a pig's head into a local mosque.

The story focuses on how the brothers deal with their return home, and their relationship with their sister.  But it's really overshadowed by the story of their father's death when they were young children.  Bob has always blamed himself for what happened but Jim makes a startling confession which makes him question how he's viewed himself for his whole life.  By the end, the brothers appear to have switched roles in the family - Bob is now the more stable, in control brother.

I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the Burgess family dynamic.