Friday, September 30, 2011

Leaving Home

Are novels which begin with a wedding more common than I realized? Jonathan Dee's “The Privileges” began that way, and Jean Thompson's The Year We Left Home opens in 1973 with the wedding of Anita Erickson in Grenada, Iowa. The device provides a great way to introduce the Erickson family – the simple hardworking parents, their four children, and their Viet Nam vet cousin Chip.

The books spans thirty years. Each chapter jumps forward in time and catches us up on the lives of some of the characters. Often a chapter reads like a short story – a fully developed episode in its own right. But this is definitely not a case where an author has simply sewn short stories together. Each episode expands and enriches our understanding of the characters and of the forces that pull the family members together and push them part. I especially enjoyed the arc Thompson created for youngest son Ryan as he moves from an earnest political science major to a disillusioned grad student to a successful IT professional and disappointed husband and father. Thompson sometimes weaves Ryan's story with that of his damaged and confused cousin Chip, deftly contrasting their two paths through thirty years of history.

Even when a storyline seems headed down a predictable path, as when rebellious younger daughter Torrie is severely injured in an accident, Thompson turns the narrative in a fresh, unexpected direction. Throughout the book some characters spin far from Iowa, others stay close, but the pull towards home is strong, and Thompson paints an honest, sometimes funny, often poignant portrait of an American family.

Friday, September 16, 2011

What If?

I always say that I don't like fantasy or sci-fi books, and yet I love books that ask 'What if?' and then spin out a believable alternate universe. Tom Perrotta's 'What if?' is a doozy – what if The Rapture happens? And what if, instead of taking just God-fearing Christians, it disappears a seemingly random assortment of Christians, Jews, atheists, agnostics, whatever? What happens to the people who don't make the cut – The Leftovers?

The “Sudden Departure”, as politicians and scientists insist on calling the event, leaves in its wake a confused and anxious populace. Perrotta focuses on the inhabitants of the town of Mapleton as they find ways to deal with this new reality. Frank Garvey, recently elected mayor, is trying to maintain harmony and civility in the town even as his own life is in upheaval. His wife Laurie has joined the wonderfully named Guilty Remnant, who band together in group homes, take vows of silence, wear only white, and silently stare down those who don't share their guilt in order to remind them that God is watching. They also smoke like fiends, following their mantra “We Smoke to Proclaim Our Faith”. His son Tom is in the thrall of cult leader Holy Wayne, who has promised the members of his Healing Hug movement that one of his teen-aged brides will produce the Miracle Child. And his daughter Jill is simply trying to cope with the loss of her mother and the trials of high school.

There is a smattering of humor but a fair share of bleakness in Perrotta's vision of a post-rapture world, but he presents his characters in a way that made me sympathetic to even the looniest among them. His 'what if' world seemed surprisingly believable and engaging, and even managed to leave me with a sense of hope for Kevin and his family, and for Mapleton.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Train Travel

The less I know about a book when I start reading it, the happier I am. It's the same reason I hate watching movie trailers – they often reveal too much of the plot. So when I began Tessa Hadley's The London Train, I remembered vaguely that it had gotten decent reviews, but that's it.

I love riding trains, I love stories that take place on trains (sometimes romantic, sometimes sinister), I love London, so it was a natural. The main character Paul (we never get a last name), is a bookish writer/critic who lives in rural Wales with his second wife and two young daughters. He occasionally takes the train to London for radio interviews or BBC projects, but when his daughter from a first marriage abandons her university studies for a squalid flat in London with her Polish boyfriend, his trips become more frequent and his life more complicated.

I am following this well-written story when, about halfway through the book, I turn a page and discover that the London Train story has ended and a new one, called “Only Children” is beginning. I check the front cover. Yes, it clearly says “a novel”. But this second story is about Cora and her husband Robert and her sister-in-law Frankie. What happened to Paul? And Elise (second wife)? And Pia (older daughter)?

For several days I kept trying and failing to get into this second story. I was still annoyed that the book was two novellas disguised as a novel. But finally I soldiered on, started to get interested in this second cast of characters, enjoying Hadley's observant but unsentimental writing, when lo and behold, the two stories began to fold together in an elegant, unforced and satisfying way. Naturally the London train is involved.

So I guess the moral is that the adage about judging a book by its cover sometimes swings both ways.

Friday, September 2, 2011

How The Other Half Lives

A wedding is a great way to start a novel. It allows the author to throw together a lot of characters, establish their relationship to each other, and put them under stress. Jonathan Dee's The Privileges has a terrific first chapter that drops us into the wedding of Adam and Cynthia Morey. Just out of college, poised on the lip of adulthood, undaunted by a heat wave, the couple launch themselves fearlessly into marriage as the chapter ends.

By the next chapter they are settled in Manhattan with two young children. After a disappointing start at a large Wall Street firm, Adam has joined a small private equity company where he is very successful. But the couple live a strangely isolated life. The children barely know their grandparents, and the Moreys' youth, attractiveness and success make other parents at the children's exclusive school resent them. They seem to feel that they exist on some higher moral plain, so when Adam sees a way to increase his wealth by illegal means, he acts not so much out of greed as out of a sense that it proves his superiority to those who blindly follow the rules. Cynthia discovers that there is very little in life that money can't buy, and she happily passes this wisdom along to her children.

If this were the New York of an Edith Wharton novel Cynthia and Adam would be punished for their transgressions. Instead Dee gives us an inside look at life of the very rich and amoral. If he didn't write so elegantly I might have turned away in disgust, but instead I marveled at his ability to make a family dysfunctional and sympathetic at the same time.