Sunday, November 8, 2015

One book I recommend and one I really do not

We are all Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

I really found this book strange and though I struggled through it because I was sucked in (sort of like watching a traffic accident), in the end I was sorry I bothered.  First of all, though a description of the book I saw today tells you the narrator Rosemary's "sister" was a chimpanzee I did not know that until about 1/3 of the way into the book.  On the jacket the book is described as Rosemary's "coming of age" story and the impact on it of the disappearance of her sister and brother.

The book is written in the first person from Rosemary's perspective as an adult - and while I did not figure out the secret of her sister, I was confused about her from the start (for example, I could not tell if she was older or younger than Rosemary).  When it is finally revealed I think I was supposed to have figured it out - but the author was not good enough to make it clear through hints.  When I finally was hit over the head with the sister's nature I understood just how strange everyone in Rosemary's family really was - her father the psychologist who instituted the experiment and as an adult was basically a drunk, her mother who fell into severe depression after her "daughter" was given over to a lab and her brother who left home as a teenager and lived on the run from the FBI for conducting terrorist acts against animal researchers.  We also see how the experiment completely screwed up Rosemary's ability to make friends with humans as she had learned to many animal behaviours.

I also did not really understand what role the new crazy friend Rosemary makes as an adult played though she was constantly resurfacing in the present day narrative.  And by the end the book was really just a shameless rant about animal welfare.  Which is fine if that's what you set out to read, but not really entertaining as a novel.

Overall I really do not recommend this book.  There are far better coming of age tales out there and if you want to read about animal welfare, just do that.

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

After reading the above book, it was such a relief to move on to this very entertaining story.  This is a historical fiction loosely based on the life of the French Impressionist painter, Camille Pissarro, and his parents.  It is particularly focused on his fascinating mother, Rachel.

The story starts in 1807 on the then Dutch island of St. Thomas (now a U.S. Virgin Island).  Rachel is born to relatively wealthy merchants on the island.  Her father escaped Santo Domingo when there was unrest there, much like his namesake Moses, in a wicker basket carried by a servant.  Moses and his wife lost a son and Rachel felt she never received the love she should have from her very proper mother.  On the other hand her father doted on her, teaching her skills reserved only for boys at the time.  This helped her but also made her too headstrong for her own good at times.  Rachel is devoted to their made Adele and her daughter Jestine though her mother does not think she should be friends with black natives of the island.  We later learn there is far more behind her mother's feelings toward Adele and Jestine.

When he falls upon hard times, to save his business, Moses arranges for Rachel to wed an older widower, Isaac, and she becomes the mother of his three children.  She also enters into a life long friendship with their servant, Rosalie.  Rachel gives birth to 6 more children then Isaac dies as a young man.  His much younger nephew comes to the island from Paris to take over the business.  Frederic becomes the love of Rachel's life though because he is much younger and considered a relative they are shunned for years by the Island's small Jewish community.

Rachel and Frederic have several more children, including Camille.  Once Camille is older several of the chapters are written from his perspective rather than Rachel's as he struggles with his desire to become a painter when his parents want him to adopt a more conservative, commercial lifestyle.  Then the narrative takes us to Paris where Camille and his parents end up at times.

This is a fascinating look at the struggles between parent and child, between individual and community, rich and poor, master and servant, black and white.  It also examines internal struggles, particularly of Rachel and Camille.  While I liked Hoffman's The Dovekeepers, this was shorter and more manageable.  I really recommend this one.

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