The Perfect Comeback of Caroline Jacobs by Matthew Dicks

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Caroline Jacobs was generally a quiet, reserved, almost meek person in her community.  So when she suddenly uttered a fairly obscene outburst at the PTA meeting, insulting the queen bee of the moms, it was unclear what was going on.  When her daughter Polly was brought to the principal’s office the next day, it just seemed to be the right thing to steal Polly away and take her on a journey – a journey to correct the mistake she’d made years ago in high school that had overshadowed her entire life from then on.

While at first this story is somewhat entertaining and a little suspenseful (you are curious what this incident was that she needs to correct) and how she “killed” her younger sister, which is foreshadowed early in the book, but it sort of melts down into a quagmire of ridiculous details and unlikely and unrealistic scenes.

I think this is a possibly good idea, but not very well executed.  Quite forgetable…

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

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Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell are on the cusp of graduation from Brown University.  They seem to have it all, graduating from an elite university, each with their own talents and accomplishments, with their whole lives ahead of them.  But dig a little deeper, and you learn that Mitchell has been in (probably unrequited) love with Madeleine since freshman year, Madeleine is despondent after a breakup with Leonard, and Leonard is having a breakdown.  The story follows each of the characters just prior to and after their graduation, as Mitchell searches for his faith as he travels the world and Madeleine and Mitchell confront the pain and the swing of Leonard’s mental illness.

The author does an extraordinary job of painting Leonard’s bipolar disorder with tenderness, sensitivity and honesty, showing the various shades of the illness, with its extreme highs and devastating lows.  Leonard truly loves Madeleine but sometimes cannot make room for her in his world that is crowded with thoughts and emotions that overtake him.  And Madeleine tries to support him but there are many times when he is not “supportable.”  Leonard is particularly winsome, with a charm and intellect that endear the reader to him and his plight, and when he falls, the reader is right there with him.  But the reader is also privy to the effects of Leonard’s illness on many of those around him, and this is a sad portrayal of how this disease can affect so many.

Mitchell provides the lighter side of the story, with his almost comical travels and experiences.  As he searches for meaning through good works and volunteering, he learns about his own limitations.  He is not, as it happens, Mother Teresa.  His journey also helps him to come to terms with his love for Madeleine and gives him the courage to figure it all out.

I also have to confess…  I loved the locations of the scenes in this book.  The mention of places particularly in Providence in the early 80’s brought me back to my teen years and was so pleasantly nostalgic for me.  An extra bonus!

 

 

Only Time Will Tell by Jeffrey Archer

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Harry Clifton begins his life as the son of a poor widow, having to lick the bowl of his uncle’s oatmeal just to have a taste of breakfast.  Thought to be destined to work on the docks, as his uncle does, he avoids school as much as he can.  Fortunately, he discovers a mentor in Old Jack, who is thought to be crazy but who is actually very wise and kind.  It is Old Jack who actually instructs Harry and prepares him for the entrance exams to the prep school he ultimately becomes eligible for and this opens doors that Harry never knew could exist.  As Harry enters this world, he also eventually learns more about his own beginnings, including how his own father actually died and how complicated his beginnings actually were.

While this book was a fun read, it was not at all realistic.  Characters were too good or too bad.  They had connections that were beyond what might be coincidence.  And the plot twists and turns, while suspenseful and amusing, were not ones that were likely to ever have occurred.  I guess, though, that’s why they call it fiction?

The most frustrating part of this book, though, is the crazy, cliffhanger ending that is not an ending.  I hadn’t expected that I HAD to read the next book – and because of that, I’m not sure I will!  So beware -this is more of a commitment than you might think!

 

 

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

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Rachel is a headstrong, fiercely independent young, Jewish woman living with her family on the island of St. Thomas in the early 1800’s.  Unfortunately, when her father’s business falters, it appears that the only solution is to marry Rachel off to an older man (with 3 young children), so that the two businesses can merge and hopefully prosper.  Rachel is devastated, as this certainly will delay the realization of her dream, which is to one day sail off to live in Paris.  Her best friend, and housemaid, Jestine, tries to convince her to resist, but she too is powerless in resisting the cultural pressures of her time and status as a woman.  The two of them experience many heartbreaks and successes together as the saga of their lives moves forward.  The one success that Rachel achieves, although this is one that causes her great pain as well, is that she ultimately becomes the mother of Camille Pissarro, the painter.

The writing of the tale is as lyrical as Pissarro’s paintings themselves.  The author paints both St. Thomas and Paris with words, filling in the hues, the aromas, the sensations of each world. There is also a great amount of magic and fantasy, as Rachel’s faith mixes with that of the native culture of St. Thomas, and conjures up many fictional, imaginative stories that Rachel records for herself and for her children.  And although there are a few paragraphs in which the author sort of meanders onto sidetracks, it is a story that keeps one glued because the characters are ones you don’t ever want to leave.

I admire Alice Hoffman for telling the story from Pissarro’s mother’s perspective.  It is not just a fictionized biography, but it is truly a story of a strong woman in a time when women weren’t allowed to be strong.  She shows how difficult the times were and how women’s powerlessness was analogous to that of the slaves at the time.   Neither could own property, could determine who they would marry, or truly had control over decisions that were made for them by the men in their lives.   This further deepened the emotional strength of the story.

Oh, how I’d love to go back to the Musee D’Orsay now!

Giliad by Marilynne Robinson

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This very beautiful novel is written as a letter from an elderly, dying Reverend, John Ames, to his very young son.  The Reverend is the third generation leader in his small congregation in his smaller town on the American Plains.  As he reflects on his own life, and those of his father and grandfather, he also is visited by his friend’s son, who is in trouble and seeking help of some sort.  There is clearly a very unusual relationship between this man and John Ames, and this creates the little story line that carries the novel.

This is not the kind of book that grabs you  with action and holds you to the end.  This is more the type of book that you have to read slowly, to let the words wash over you so that you can absorb the wisdom within these pages.  It is reflective and pensive and peaceful, and I found myself re-reading many passages in order to appreciate them fully.  And while it is religious, in a sense, it is also universal and I feel that anyone from any background can appreciate the beauty in the words written here.

Read this, take your time, and re-read the lines so that you, too, can love this book as I do.

 

A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams

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Lily has always felt as if she were in the shadow of Budgie, the worldly one in the center of all the attention.  Having spent summers together on the small peninsula of Seaview, RI, although she’s grown and at Smith College, she still feels inferior to Budgie who is able to navigate the world of men so smoothly – or at least, that is what is feels like.  As Lily begins her romance with a football star from Dartmouth, Nick, she learns gradually, as we do, that things are not exactly as they appear to be.

The author utilizes a back and forth, between time periods 7 years apart, which tells the story from 2 sides and maintains a great aura of suspense. The characters are beautiful, the writing is elegant and the story whips into a twisted plot and a stormy ending.

Another beautiful story by Beatriz Williams!

All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen

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In the tiny, ultra-Hassidic (Skverer) community of New Square, author Shulem Deen dared to question his religious practices and belief in God. Born in Brooklyn to a different sect of Hassidism, he chose this community because of his impression that it was welcoming and that it espoused the spiritual essence he was searching for.  He studied in the yeshivah there and in time was married off to a girl he’d met only once before his wedding.  He tried to make a life for himself, studying, working (or trying to, in spite of the minimal secular education he was provided), and even fathering children.  But his doubts began to niggle at him as did his curiosity about the outside world (of which he knew almost nothing).

This is not the best-written or the most gripping story, but it is very human and very heartfelt.  More importantly, it also gives the reader an insider’s view into this terribly insular ghetto.  More than almost any other sect of Judaism, this group of people consider any exposure to the outside/modern world (television, newspapers, etc.) a doorway to sin.  There is no such thing as discussion or debate, unless it is related to the study of Torah.  Anyone who questions the Rebbe — the ultimate leader believed, in a sense, to hold a direct line to God — is one who must be punished and abolished from their midst.  And this is the ultimate fate of Shulem.

Sadly, this is another example of how religious extremism promotes hatred, intolerance, and cruelty toward anyone who is perceived as different.  Poor Shulem was just another victim of this.