After I Do by Taylor Jenkins Reid

It comes as no surprise to either Lauren or Ryan that they are at a crossroads in their marriage.  In fact, if they are honest with themselves, they’ve been struggling, with resentment and anger cresting like a slow wave, for months now.  As they are finally forced to acknowledge their painful situation, they strike a condition — an unusual, creative test of a sort —  to try to determine their future together.  Will this work?  Will this test drive them further apart?  Or will it, as they hope, bring them back together?

After reading a few of Reid’s books, I have come to understand that her gift is writing about relationships.  She has the uncanny ability of being able to create warmth between characters so palpable that is seems to rise up from the pages of the book.  I think that’s why I enjoy her writing so much.  Present here also is her signature use of an alternative medium of writing, using emails between characters to serve as an inspired means of allowing the reader to dive deeper into their hearts.

In truth, this book is really a light, beach read-type book.  It’s a love story, with sunny, quirky characters, and a few entertaining subplots that push the story forward.  In fact, there are a few details missing that I find odd.  For example, we never learn what Ryan actually does for a living – and he’s a pretty significant character.  I don’t know why that is.  And when Lauren goes to work (we do know what she does), we rarely hear about the work that she does.  Just an interesting and strange thing.

But that said, it is a fun, light, summer read that is a good antidote to all that is surrounding us at the moment, so I say, go for it!  Good therapeutic distraction!

 

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Saeed and Nadia have met at a difficult time.  It is just as their city is being overrun by militants who gradually infiltrate their city.   As the violence worsens, they become more desperate to find a way out.  But do they leave without Saeed’s dear parents?  And how do they escape, when all the exit doors seem to be closed to them?  As they find their way together, they learn about how the world may open up doors, but that there may not be a welcome mat waiting for them at the other side.

I had very mixed feelings as I progressed through the pages of this book.  On one hand, it does open the reader to the very gritty, naked reality of the immigrant experience of these past few years. While we are not told where the couple is running from (and details are vague throughout this book), we can guess Afghanistan or Pakistan as most likely.  As the couple move to new lands, they experience some support, but mostly harsh conditions and resentment and prejudice by the “nativists” in each of the countries to which they flee.  At one point, Nadia even wonders if it was worth running from their oppressors, having only come to another country in which she is being oppressed.

On the other hand, because the writing is so sparse on details, it feels somewhat disconnected from the characters themselves, and I felt almost less invested in their story because of this.  We like them both, Saeed and Nadia, but we don’t get inside their heads.  We don’t feel what is deep in their hearts – they are a sort of neutral territory.  And when random characters are introduced, some from across the world, in random order, with tiny, yet interesting stories of their own with no connection whatsoever to the story at hand – I am just not sure where those come from or why they are included.  It is either strange editing or I am just not smart enough to get it.  (It is probably the latter, I admit.)

On the other hand, again, there are some details I like and think are creative.  I like that Saeed and Nadia are the only characters to be given names, while all the other characters are identified by their descriptions only.  It is a powerfully literary way to  further isolate them – and their experience is certainly isolating — as they travel through each “door” into each new country, into each new opportunity.

As you see, I am truly going back and forth on this one, as I did while I was reading it.  It is an interesting read, but I am still not sure whether I liked it or not. If nothing else, it has stimulated much thought – so that counts for a lot, right?

I’d love to know what others think about this one!

 

 

Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo

Amma is anxious.  Tonight is the opening of her newest play, and although she’s been doing this for years, she’s never before opened in the National Theatre.  This feels so much more colossal, so more auspicious than anything else she’s undertaken.  She thinks back to her modest beginnings, when she partnered with Dominique, an independent, creative woman like herself with ambitious dreams and a personality to match.  And she thinks about all the people who will be there for her.  And we will meet many of these people as the book unfolds, and we will hear each of their stories unwind through the pages as they all wind back to Amma.

Everything about this book is unique.

The writing is almost without punctuation, written as if it is one, very long, run-on, but poetic sentence.  However, it is divided by starting new lines,

very

strategically.

While I admit this took a bit of getting used to at first, I found it worked – and actually made the writing extremely powerful.

Most of the characters are women of color, often of mixed heritage, and often identify as LGBTQI – and each is given a deeply vivid story to tell.  While most experience racism of some kind, they confront it in many different ways, and most finding a way to either rise above or cut right through.  There are many characters – and to be honest, I did find it sometimes hard to keep track of them all – but each had her/their beauty, each was sympathetic in some way, and each was was someone you came to think of as an actual, tactile person.

It is easy to see how this book won the Booker Prize in 2019, as it is beautifully composed, with gorgeous characters and with a memorable round of stories to tell.  It will keep you glued and it will warm your heart.

I”ve got another MUST READ for you!

The Vacationers by Emma Straub

Franny is so ready to be away from New York City – but is she ready to be on an island with her family for two whole weeks?  How will this work, given all that has happened with her husband, Jim?  Will they be able to maintain the wall of secrecy they’ve maintained from their son, Bobby?  Will Charles, Franny’s best friend, and his husband, be the buffer she hopes they’ll be?  As it turns out, Franny is not the only one anxious about the trip, and we learn from each of the vacationers that the aspirations they bring with them on this journey impacts both themselves and each other.

This was a perfect summer read – light but with substance, honest but with some fluff, and gritty but with humor.  I was definitely engaged.  I found myself giggling at some points, but also found myself feeling tenderness for some of the characters at many points as well.  And maybe there was a little of the idealistic here, a little “fantasy,” with the setting on the island of Mallorca, the beautiful house, the mountains, the characters who forgive easily, etc., but isn’t that what fiction is for?

At this moment, when things are so dark, with an ongoing pandemic, with the uncovering of decades of racial injustice, with a frightening election on the horizon, this is a wonderful escape into a sunnier place.  Let yourself vacation here!

 

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid

Emira was in the midst of celebrating one of her best friends’ 26th birthday, when she was called, late at night, to come babysit for little Briar.  Pleading an emergency that would bring police to the home, Mrs. Chamberlain wanted Briar out of the house.  Needing the cash, and actually adoring spending time with Briar for whatever reason, Emira arrived in heels and her short skirt to take Briar to the grocery store where Briar was entranced with the nut selection.  When an off-duty security officer created an outrageous scene over what Emira was doing with Briar in the grocery store late at night, this led to an uprooting in Emira’s life that she never would have ever imagined.

On the surface, this is a fun read, full of twists and cringe-worthy moments.  It’s almost as if we are seeing the characters on their way to driving into a virtual car crash before they actually do – we see them heading toward it, we feel it coming, we are, in our minds, trying to stop them and we can’t. And it isn’t exactly a crash, and it isn’t fatal, and so we can ride with them and enjoy the irony of the moments as they careen into each other, so to speak.

But look a little deeper and you see that layered in these pages is a much stronger message.  Once again, we see the White folks telling the Black woman (Emira) what is best for her, what she should be doing with her life, as if they know.  They are blind to their own shortcomings, but dole out guidance and, indeed, intervene on her behalf, uninvited.  Believing themselves “nice,” they are merely patronizing and using her as a symbol of their liberal leanings.  A scene I know is not unique.

This book is powerful in its subtlety and will be far reaching because of its accessibility. Highly recommend this one!

 

The Women in Black by Madeleine St. John

As the Christmas season approaches, it is decided that two new temporary hires will be added to the the Ladies’ Frocks Department at Goode’s department store, in Sydney, Australia (circa 1950).    This creates quite a buzz among the staff, who are fairly set in their routines and social circles.  As we come to know each of the women and her personal challenges, we see how the influx of these new women brings with it a fresh air for each woman’s life circumstance.   Bonds form and there is a warm embrace that envelops around the Ladies’ department of Goode’s after all.

I was looking for a lighter novel to read on the beach, and this was a placeholder.  It is definitely light, sometimes funny, and the characters hold charm, for sure.  The writing aims for an old-timey, 1950’s-ish tone, with a nostalgic air.

On the other hand, it is hard to read this without feeling that it is somewhat vacuous.  The message here is clear that no female character can achieve fullness in their life without being  married to a man, even if that man is dull and insensitive.  And even if a woman is smart, it is up to her father (yes, of course, another male) to determine if she is allowed to foster that intelligence to its fullest.  Everyone here with any power is male.  And I do understand that this was the 1950’s but I am not convinced that all that much has changed.

I suppose I am just tired of acquiescing to the fact of this power scenario, and going along with the status quo without calling it out.  I can’t do it anymore.  And maybe if we start calling it out in the books we read, we’ll gain confidence in calling it out in real life as well.

 

 

Call Your Daughter Home by Deb Spera

The 1920’s may have been “roarin'” for some, but it didn’t take the stock market crash to bring financial despair to Gertrude and her girls. No, she had that thrust upon her much earlier, with the boll weevil devastation of her husband’s cotton crops a year earlier and his drowning himself in alcohol for comfort.   Now, all she can do to save her four daughters from abject starvation, is to leave them with others until she comes up with an urgent action plan.  As she enacts her plan, and without meaning to, she draws in the support of two other women, Oretta and Annie, who are confronting their own, shared, past.  Very quickly, she finds herself slowly enabling them to be strengthened by her evolving strength.

This is a gorgeously written novel that is engaging from the very first words.  What is most magnetic are the characters – they are so beautiful and private,  vulnerable and proud – they pull you right in.  You just wish for the opportunity sit with each one, to drink sweet tea and to talk for hours.  Oretta, especially.  Oretta has worked for Annie all her life, as has her own mother.   She is kind, gentle, compassionate and wise, and has had losses and loves that have shaped her.   She is the person who would take in a young, sick child,  a perfect stranger, and care for her as her own.

There are so many layers tucked into the pages of this work of historical fiction, which make it so strong.  Layers of plot lines, layers of personality traits to each of the characters, even layers of voices.  I am in awe at the ability of a writer to incorporate all of this into a novel without it saddling the novel with sagging detail.  This one moves quickly, keeps the reader always engaged, and leaves you wanting more time with it.

Although this is a painful story and the details are difficult, I very highly recommend this book – and give it a rare MUST READ!

Neuland by Eshkol Nevo

if he thinks about it, Dori has to admit that he has been feeling diminished by his life lately — disconnected from his wife, possibly over-connected with his son Netta, and unrecognized for his passion for teaching history to the next generation.  That is, until he is called upon by his sister to travel from Israel to South America to search for their father, who has just disappeared.  During the course of this search, he encounters Inbar, a young woman who is embarking on a journey of her own, as she seeks to distill her own trauma and sort out her own way forward.  As their paths converge, they bond almost inadvertently and what they discover is quite startling on many levels.

This book was initially hard work.  At least for me, it took about 250-300 pages to become engaged in the lives of the characters enough to really and truly HAVE to see it through.  Once I was there,  however, it definitely reached that “page-turner” level.  Moreover, it grew in complexity as it progressed  It was as if the seeds had to be planted and given time for the roots to take hold.  Once they were firmly embedded, the story was then able to branch out, creating a complex plot line that fully blooms.

One of my favorite characters is Lily, Inbar’s grandmother.  We meet Lily as a grandmother, whose memory is failing.  And we meet her in glimpses of her memories of her younger self, making the arduous trek to Palestine from Europe just before the war.  We see the hopeful young pioneer with a dream of what Erez Yisrael, the Land of Israel, will be: the homeland of the Jews, the refuge for those with no other place to go.  And we see her own personal struggle with choices she makes for herself, for her country, and for her ideals.

There is a lot to digest here in these pages.  There is a lot of discussion about the land of Israel,  where the Jewish homeland should really be and if what is happening now is actually working.  Is Israel today a failed experiment?  Who has the right to make that decision?  Are there too many people in Israel broken by wars there to make these decisions?

This would be a fantastic book for a book club, were it not for the length of the book.  (This tiny review does not at all do it justice. ) On the other hand, since we’re all still pretty much stuck at home anyway, we have time to read very long books!  Maybe give this one a try.  I”d be curious to hear what others think about it.   We’ll have a mini-book club discussion right here on this blog…

 

The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Monique cannot understand why she has been personally requested to conduct the interview of the legendary movie star, Evelyn Hugo for Vivant Magazine.  It is not as if she’s made a shining name for herself there.   Beside her one truly great piece about assisted suicide, she hasn’t written all that much she’s terribly proud of — but perhaps this is finally her big break.  And what a story this should prove to be!  Seven husbands!  (Monique cannot abide her even one…) This should get someone’s attention…

Taylor Jenkins Reid seems always to employ an inventive method of telling a story.  Here it is a story within a story, as we sit side by side with Monique, drinking in Evelyn’s pour.  And it enables us to get to know both women, their stories and their struggles, as they get to know each other. And what stories they have to share!

Both characters defy the stereotype, the norm.  Evelyn is unapologetically ambitious, which I love seeing in a female heroine.  So refreshing!  Evelyn Hugo aggressively goes after what she wants, is smart about it, and knows who she is dealing with at all times.  And while she suffers consequences of her actions sometimes, she does not wallow in self-pity.  She pulls herself up and moves on.  She is the ultimate cool, and we love rooting for her.

This is a warm, engaging, and honest read with characters who you will miss as soon as you come to the final page.  Even the husbands are ok (well, some of them ..!)

 

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

While Anna has always been curious about her father’s “errands” for work, she has never questioned them.  On the contrary, she adores accompanying her father and loves that he entrusts her with knowing how to conduct herself with his business associates.  So why is it that she suddenly has become too old to continue to go? Does he not trust her anymore?

On the other hand, life has become quite complicated for her father,  Eddie.  He’d thought he’d figured out a way to save them from the poverty that surrounded New Yorkers in the late 1930’s, but it has become more complicated than he’d predicted.   And no one in the family really understands.  And he must protect them from understanding fully.

This is a hugely ambitious novel of historical fiction takes place just before and during WWII, primarily in New York harbor, focusing on the New York Naval Yard.  Once Anna has grown, she is employed in the building of the warships in the Yard, and becomes entangled, in her own way, in the complicated world her father has left behind.

It is a bit of work, this novel.  This is not an easy read.  There is a lot of technical wording and esoteric jargon — seafaring-related –that admittedly flew right over my head.  Sometimes this is a bit mind-numbing, I have to admit, but after awhile, it sinks in subconsciously.

On the other hand, it is likely that this very detail is what ultimately creates the understanding of the drama that builds up in later half of the book.  It is the excruciating detail that enables us to visualize exactly what is going on when each of the characters encounter their respective dangers and we are right there experiencing those dangers with them.

I also loved these characters.  Anna is a strong, painfully lonely character who is an admirable story heroine.  She fights for what she wants to do, works hard and abides ridicule and interminable prejudice in order to achieve her goals, earning the respect of her male peers by her endurance.  The reader adores cheering her on.

So I suppose I am encouraging patience and adherence for this book – it does pay off in the end for a dramatic and heartfelt story line.  You will have to be willing to learn a lot about ships, sailing, and naval structure, but you will glean a reading experience with tenderness, complex characters, and a build-up to great suspense.