Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Last Wave by Gillian Best

In general I enjoyed this book, though at times it was a bit slow and I had to put it down.  At its heart it is the story of a woman, Martha, and her family.

Martha lives in Dover, England and as a ten year old child accidentally falls into the sea.  While she is quickly rescued by a friend of her father's, it scares him so much he arranges for her to have swimming lessons - and there begins her love of the sea.  The narrative spans some sixty years and at all the difficult times in her life, Martha turns to the sea for strength and solace.

The narrative actually starts in 2014 with Martha's husband, John.  It quickly becomes apparent that she has passed away, but that he is suffering from advanced dementia and keeps forgetting that so sets out to the seaside to find her.

After this first chapter the narrative skips back and forth in time and perspective.  We learn of Martha's childhood, John's courtship and proposal, her dissatisfaction as a young mother of Iain and Harriet and eventually her cancer diagnosis and John's dementia.

Though she initially gives up swimming upon her marriage, when the children are young she decides that to save herself she needs to swim the channel.  She has one aborted attempt but then successfully crosses ten times.  On all the crossings John is there in her support boat.

Besides Martha's story, we also learn about Harriet who is disowned by her father upon announcing she is a lesbian and marrying a woman.  Harriet cannot forgive her father for that or her mother for failing to stand up to him.  However, unbeknownst to her, her wife Iris visits her mother every year with news of Harriet and their daughter, Myrtle.  When she turns 13 Myrtle decides to find her grandparents and learns of the cancer and dementia.  She reports back to Harriet who calls Iain who has moved to Australia and it is only then that there are efforts at reconciliation.

Though deprived of her grandparents for most of her life, Myrtle is a swimmer and quickly bonds with her grandmother.

Much of the book is quite sad - the rift between the family members, John's struggle with dementia (and its effect on Martha and the others around him) and Martha's cancer.  But the fascination with the sea, and its curative effects, is quite interesting.  The love between John and Martha, despite all the obstacles, is also very hopeful.

While the book was not fantastic, it was good and is worth reading.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The Arrangement by Sarah Dunn

This is actually one of the best books I've read in a long time.  The characters were engaging, the dialogue witty and the storyline somehow both unusual yet believable.

Lucy and Owen are a married couple with a five-year old autistic son, Wyatt.  They have moved from Manhattan to the small town of Beekman in the Hudson Valley.  They traded in a cramped apartment for a large old house where they even keep chickens.  Owen continues to work a couple of towns over as a head hunter while Lucy cares for Wyatt and their home.  One night over drinks their friends tell them about a gay couple who have an open marriage and all four discuss the merits of it.  So Lucy and Owen decide to try it - they set out the rules of a 6 month arrangement that allows them to sleep with other people.

We spend most of the book learning the consequences for each of them, and their marriage, of this arrangement.  Owen finds a partner first, Izzy, whose ex-husband describes her as "five kinds of crazy" - and she is.  But somehow Owen can't extricate himself from the relationship.  When Lucy is certain Owen has started sleeping with someone else she discusses it with a friend who sets her up with Ben, a recently divorced man living in New York.  Lucy becomes attached to him and invents French classes which allow her to travel to New York weekly while Owen is in charge of Wyatt.

But not all of the book is about Lucy and Owen.  We also see a lot of Wyatt - his behaviour seems comical from an outsider's perspective yet you can certainly see the challenges he poses for his parents.  We also meet other townspeople - some of the mothers at the school like Claire, Susan Howard and Sunny Bang (Lucy's best friend who fixed her up with Ben).  There are also scenes with the town's resident billionaire, Gordon Allen, who is sick of his trashy fourth wife but can't figure out how to properly divorce her when, in a state of delusion, he never had her sign a prenup.  And now he wants not only to protect his fortune but to have primary custody of their son.  He leads the charge to get rid of Wyatt's kindergarten teacher, Mr. Lowell who has decided to become Mrs. Lowell.

Susan Howard, who is involved in an unhappy, sexless marriage of her own, leads the protests to have Mrs. Lowell reinstated.  She beseeches all the men in the town to wear dresses, with limited success.  This campaign culminates in the most humorous scene of the book - a ceremony where all the kids in the town bring their pets to the church to be blessed.  The mix of cats, dogs, chickens, goats and even a llama is wonderful.

In the epilogue which takes place about 15 months after the arrangement ends, we see what has happened to all of the characters.

I highly recommend this book; I couldn't put it down.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout

Although I didn't realize it, this is actually a collection of inter-related short stories rather than a novel.  The protagonists in each of the stories is somehow related to characters in the other ones.  All of the characters live in (or come from) small towns in Illinois.  Many of them are of impoverished backgrounds; several of them were abused as children; all of them are very strange.

In the first story, Tommy used to own a dairy farm which burned down; he then worked as a janitor at the local school.  He befriended several of the children there and still visits Pete, a loner, who thinks his father was responsible for the fire and that Tommy is visiting him as punishment.  Tommy seems normal enough except that he thinks he saw God at the time of the fire.

Pete's sister, Lucy Barton, left the small town years ago and is now a successful writer - she is the main character in Strout's prior novel, My Name is Lucy Barton.  Lucy comes back to visit with Pete and their other sister in one of the stories and we learn more about their horrid upbringing.  The visit ends in Lucy's panic attack driven escape.

In two stories we also meet Lucy's cousins Abel and Dottie who were so poor growing up they used to eat from dumpsters.  Abel is now a successful businessman while Dottie runs a bed and breakfast.  Other townspeople we meet are the Nicely sisters, Patty and Linda.  "Fatty Patty" is a guidance counsellor at the local school where she is verbally abused by a student, none other than Lucy Barton's niece.  Her husband has died and she is secretly in love with an older married man, Charlie.  Charlie suffers from PTSD and cheats on his wife with a prostitute.  Linda is married to a rapist who seems to always get away with it.  Patty and Linda's mother, who left them when they were teenagers after having an affair with one of their teachers, struggles with dementia.  We also meet Patty's friend Angelina whose mother left for Italy to marry a much younger man after discovering her husband's marital infidelity.

As strange as all the characters are, they are very interesting so I enjoyed the book.  It was also an easy read since each story was fairly short so you could break it into small pieces.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Color of Our Sky by Amita Trasi

I really liked this book - though it was quite disturbing to realize how many girls in India may actually be experiencing what Mukta experiences in the novel.

In 1986 Mukta is a 10 year old girl living in a small village in India.  Her mother, grandmother and other female ancestors were all temple prostitutes - women from a lower caste who were required to "wed" a goddess rather than a man and make themselves available for any man in the community who wants their services.  Mukta's mother is trying desperately to avoid this fate for her daughter, but is dying of a mysterious illness and, no longer able to work, Mukta's grandmother agrees to sell her to a Madam so she can "fulfill her destiny".

After her first brutal experience Mukta is rescued by a kind elderly woman who convinces her son to take her away to his home in Mumbai.  There Mukta befriends his eight year old daughter Tara.  Though she is worked to the bone by Tara's mother, and lives as a lowly servant, Tara teaches her to read and introduces her to a better life.  This is not to last - Mukta is kidnapped and returned to a life of prostitution.

Meanwhile Tara and her father immigrate to Los Angeles, but neither forgets Mukta.  After her father's death in 2004, Tara returns to Mumbai to search for her.  The rest of the book alternates chapters between both girls' reminiscences about their past together, what happened to each of them in the intervening years and Tara's desperate search for Mukta.

The book gives great insight into India's caste system and how terrible traditions can be for certain lower caste women.  It also shows the tremendous gap between the rich and the poor.  But it also gives hope of how that gap can be bridged by friendships and caring people.

I strongly recommend this book.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

The Rome Affair by Karen Swan

By the time I got this book from the library, I couldn't remember where I heard about it.  While it wasn't fantastic, it was worth reading.

The story begins with a cryptic prologue set in Rome in 1989.  The characters involved are not even named - and it takes until almost the epilogue to figure out its meaning.  The rest of the book alternates scenes in Rome in 2017 with flashbacks to the life of an elderly Viscontessa, Elena.

In 2017 Elena hires Cesca to sort through all her family photos in order to write her biography.  Cesca is a former barrister who left England for Rome when something terrible happened to her - we only learn exactly what that was late in the narrative.  As a barrister trained to cross examine, she quickly realizes Elena is putting a happy gloss on her scandalous life.  In the chapters from Elena's past we see just how little of the truth she is actually sharing.

The chapters from the past are interesting - we get a glimpse into the life of a very wealthy American socialite who was married and divorced three times before she meets Vito, an Italian aristocrat, and her fourth husband.  He is madly in love with her, and she with him, until she meets his twin brother, Aurelio.  Though Elena and Aurelio fight their feelings eventually it drives a wedge between the brothers.  It also turns many of their Italian friends and family against Elena.  Part of Cesca's work involves unravelling exactly what happened between Elena, Vito and Aurelio.

There is also a side present day love story between Cesca and Nico which is a nice diversion from the other mystery.

Again, not a fantastic book but entertaining.