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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Uncoupling

The Uncoupling
Meg Wolitzer
Riverhead Books, 2011

When the new drama teacher at Stellar Plains High School chooses a classic for the next school play, a strange metaphysical force seems to be at work among all the women of the town. The play, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, is a story in which the women in a community stop having sex with the men in order to end a long war. As soon as the play is announced, the women in Steller Plains start to feel strange, one by one. Soon all the perfectly normal women and teenage girls have turned away from their husbands and boyfriends in the bedroom, for reasons they don't really understand. As the women worry over their loss of passion, and the men become by turns unhappy, offended, and above all, confused, both sides are forced to look at their relationships in a new way.

If you like a bit of magical realism mixed with your literary fiction, then you may really like this book. It reminded me of many of Alice Hoffman’s books because of the similar way a small unexplained event becomes a catalyst for an upheaval of some kind. In this novel, this unexplained event may be the play, or it may be the drama teacher, or it may just be a soft wind that blows in each woman’s window as she lies in bed at night. It is sad, in a way, to see all the relationships erode when couples don’t have the intimacy that sex brings, and it reminds the reader that a good marriage is really a miraculous and wondrous thing.

That being said, I was not enamored of this book and found the magical event to be a plot device of an annoying and distracting nature. I found the characters to be far more interesting than the plot and would have liked to see how they lived and loved each other under different circumstances. Perhaps some of them will show up in another novel without the benefit of a drama teacher’s unfair influence so we can see how they would behave in more normal situations.


Other novels by this author:
The Wife (2003)
The Position (2005)
The Ten Year Nap (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley (2007)
In the wake of the 2003 Academy Awards, a group of friends and family gathers in the Hollywood hills for ten transformative days of love, memories, gossip, movies, and more, including Max, an Oscar-winning writer/director whose career is waning; his lover Elena; his ex-wife, film star Zoe Cunningham; their daughter Isabel; and others.

The Humbling by Philip Roth (2009)
Presents the story of Simon Axler--an actor in his sixties who has lost his wife, his audience, and confidence in his talent--whose risky and aberrant desire points toward a dark and shocking end.

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (2007)
On their wedding day, a young couple--Florence, daughter of an Oxford academic and a successful businessman, and Edward, an earnest history student with little experience of women--looks forward to the future while worrying about their upcoming wedding night.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Unce Upon a Time There Was You

Once Upon a Time There Was You
Elizabeth Berg
Random House, 2011

Sharing nothing in common except their 16-year-old daughter, divorced parents John and Irene reconnect in the wake of a devastating tragedy and discover things about each other that they had not revealed during their marriage.

John and Irene each dote on their daughter, Sadie. John lives in Minnesota where he renovates old buildings. Irene and Sadie relocated to San Francisco after the divorce, where Irene works as a caterer and writes sad personal ads. Sadie is 18 and ready for college, but has a secret she is keeping from her parents: she is interested in a boy and has lied to her parents about a hiking trip in order to spend time with him. This is why Irene is not too worried when Sadie has not contacted her one night; she assumes she is out of cell phone range -- until too much time passes with no word from her, and then panic sets in. Sadie is officially missing.

Although the drama of a missing child would be enough for any story, this plot device is odd and out of place in this one. Our focus has been on the story of a marriage, John’s and Irene’s, and how it became damaged beyond mending. When the disappearance occurs, the reader is shocked out of the contemplative and emotional back-story of this couple and into a nightmare that belongs in some other story, some other book that is suspenseful and scary. Then, when Sadie is found and she makes decisions that shock her parents, we are thrust back into the dynamic of a family relationship again, only this time the parents must cope with a major life decision that Sadie makes, no doubt as a result of post-traumatic stress. Emotionally, this book takes the reader on a roller coaster of sorts, one of which we did not sign up for when we elected to read a book by this author. I like her other books much more than this one.


There are many other books written by Elizabeth Berg. Please check if you want to know more!

Other titles you may enjoy:

1022 Evergreen Place by Debbie Macomber (2010)
Neighbors Mary Jo Wyse and Mack McAfee feel their love grow as they work together to solve the mystery of what happened to the World War II soldier who wrote the letters that Mary Jo found, and to the girl he wrote to.

The Love Season by Erin Hildebrand (2006)
Journeying to Nantucket to visit with her new fiancĂ©’s family, Renata goes against her father's wishes to confront the truth about her mother's untimely death, an effort that brings her into the complicated life of her godmother, Marguerite.

Life without Summer by Lynne Reeves Griffin (2009)
A tale told in alternating voices follows the experiences of bereaved mother Tessa, who searches for answers after her four-year-old daughter is killed in a hit-and-run accident; and her grief counselor, Celia, whose efforts to help Tessa revive painful family memories.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Heads You Lose
Lisa Lutz and David Hayward
Putnam, 2011

Pot-growing siblings Paul and Lacey Hansen must investigate why the headless corpse of Lacey's ex-fiancé turned up on their property, in a metafictional mystery where the authors disagree as to how the story should progress, a contention that causes a higher body count, a host of quirky characters and more insanity than the Hansens can handle.

Once again Lisa Lutz totally cracked me up with this pseudo-mystery she cowrote with her ex-boyfriend, David Hayward. If you read any of her Spellman series then you know how laugh-out-loud funny her books are; this is no exception. Be prepared: this is not a normal novel!

It begins with a proposal that Lutz sends to Hayward regarding collaborating on a mystery. Her idea is they will each write alternating chapters and then comment on what each has written via footnotes. They agree they cannot alter anything the other has previously written. The result is an insanely funny story within a story that does not quite go where Lutz wants it to, but manages to entertain the reader despite the plot and character problems. The real fun here is the interaction between the collaborating (and I use that term loosely) authors, one of whom tries to control the other with hilarious results. She criticizes his use of big words and kills off his favorite character; he bristles at her superior attitude and brings the same character back to life in the next chapter. I was reading this in bed one night while my husband was sleeping and kept waking him up with my giggling and snorting.

I loved this book but have to admit to a few problems: it’s a bit disjointed because of the differing writing styles; the footnotes and emails are funny but interrupt the flow; and the story doesn’t really get developed in any meaningful way, but who cares? In the end those things don’t really matter as long as reading it was this much fun.


Other books by Lisa Lutz:
The Spellman Files (2007)
Curse of the Spellmans (2008)
Revenge of the Spellmans (2009)
The Spellmans Strike Again (2010)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Centuries of June by Keith Donohue (2011)
A darkly comic tale set in the bathroom of an old house at dawn follows the experiences of a man whose attempt to relate how he came to suffer a grave injury is interrupted by a sequence of eight women suspects who convey respective stories in the literary styles of various historical periods.

Moo by Jane Smiley (1995)
In urgent need of funds, Moo University, a huge Midwestern agricultural college, and its male-dominated hierarchy search for a solution to their economic woes.

The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon (2007)
In a world in which Alaska, rather than Israel, has become the homeland for the Jews following World War II, Detective Meyer Landsman and his half-Tlingit partner Berko investigate the death of a heroin-addicted chess prodigy.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Gentleman Poet
Kathryn Johnson
Avon, 2010

Elizabeth Persons, an orphan, ends up in Bermuda after being shipwrecked, where she falls in love with the ship's cook and is befriended by a mysterious poet, William, who writes a play for the survivors about their predicament on the island.

At first, I assumed this was a story of some depth and character; after all, William Shakespeare was a character. Soon I discovered that it had all the elements of a typical romance novel without any of the charm of a Shakespeare creation. In fact, I was supremely disappointed in the flat and stereotypical characters (a crotchety mistress, a headstrong servant girl, a mysterious stranger, etc. etc.), the typical boy meets girl plot sequence, and the unreliable historical details. I looked in vain for evidence that Shakespeare actually went on a boat trip to America; if this isn’t true about an actual person, then what else did the author use liberties with?

Romance readers may love this book; it has all the elements of a light-hearted love story with a happy ending. Historical fiction and Shakespeare fans may want to look elsewhere.


This is the author’s first novel.

Other titles you may enjoy:

The King’s Daughter by Sandra Worth (2008)
A fictional portrait of Elizabeth of York, eldest daughter of King Edward IV, describes her life in the wake of her beloved father's death, as she and her siblings are branded as bastards and her brothers vanish, as she cherishes a forbidden love for her uncle, Richard of Gloucester, and ultimately marries Henry Tudor to become queen and mother of Henry VIII.

Ghost Light by Joseph O’Connor (2011)
A collaborative effort between W. B. Yeats and resident playwright John Synge at the Abbey Theatre in 1907 gives way to a barrier-breaking affair with teen actress Molly Allgood, who after World War II looks back on her career and the great love of her life.

Sunflowers by Sheramy Bundrick (2009)
Nineteenth-century French prostitute Rachel Courteau becomes drawn to one of her newest clients, Vincent Van Gogh, and a true relationship blossoms until outside pressures threaten the safe haven they have created.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Charles Jessold; Considered as a Murderer

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
Wesley Stace
Picador, 2011

Set in 1923 England, this intricate novel tells the macabre story of a gifted young composer, Charles Jessold, who on the eve of his revolutionary new opera's premiere murders his wife and her lover, then commits suicide in a scenario that echoes the plot of his opera.

I have enjoyed this author’s other books, but this one is too “intricate” for me. I found it confusing with too many characters and far too descriptive for my level of patience, so I abandoned it after the first few chapters. The narrator, one of the characters in the novel, employed quite a large vocabulary with extensive and clever wordplay that I tired of rather quickly. Readers who enjoy music and narrators who find themselves infinitely amusing will probably enjoy this – all others should try one of the author’s other novels instead.


Other books by this author:
Misfortune (2005)
By, George (2007)

Other titles you may enjoy:

The Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue (2008)
Emily "Fido" Faithfull, a spinster pioneer in the British women's movement, is distracted from her cause by the details of her friend's failing marriage and affair with a young army officer, in this drama of friends, lovers, and divorce, Victorian style.

Engleby by Sebastian Faulks (2007)
Follows narrator Mike Engleby through adolescence in the 1970s, as he suffers bouts of memory loss and tells up front that he might or might not have committed the brutal murder of his classmate, Jennifer Arkland.

The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton (2007)
Seduced into an underground circle of thrill-seeking fellow students at Cambridge's Tudor College, James Walker enters obsessive relationships with a beautiful coed and the group's ringleader before becoming involved in an audacious art fraud scheme.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife
Paula McLain
Ballantine, 2011

Meeting through mutual friends in Chicago, Hadley is intrigued by Ernest Hemingway, and after a brief courtship and small wedding, they take off for Paris, where Hadley makes a convincing transformation from an overprotected child to a brave young woman who puts up with impoverished living conditions and shattering loneliness to prop up her husband's career.

I’ve never read any biographies of Hemingway, but I’ve always imagined that he was a “man’s man,” and as such not inclined to be romantic or sensitive. This fictionalized account of Hadley’s and Ernest’s relationship, however, portrays him as very much in love with Hadley and quite romantic during their courtship. After marrying quite quickly and moving to Paris, Ernest is still quite sweet and attentive to his wife, confiding his hopes and dreams for a writing career to an eager helpmate. He and Hadley are poor, but very much in love, and she fully supports his decisions.

After their son is born, however, Hadley and Ernest experience more stress and financial hardship. Hadley begins to notice that Ernest prefers spending a great deal of time with one of her own friends, Pauline, and even though she tries to be open-minded and accepting of their friendship, it soon becomes apparent that they are having an affair. In fact, the “lost generation” of writers and artists who have made up their circle of friends all seem to know what is going on before she does, and finally Hadley cannot pretend that things will ever be the same as they were the first few years in Paris. She asks for a divorce and from then on, is known as the “Paris Wife.”

This bittersweet romantic novel is full of atmosphere and feeling. The characters are based on actual people; I found myself hoping that this story of their courtship and marriage had at least some basis in reality because I like to think that Ernest and Hadley were truly this much in love with each other. Their funny nicknames along with their mutual respect and admiration for each other was so touching that I felt genuine sadness when their marriage ended. There have been many accounts of Hemingway’s life which attempt to explain why he behaved the way he did – but in this story we only have Hadley’s sad and poignant account of a great love that had no choice but to die in fiction the way it did in real life.


Other novels by this author:
Ticket to Ride (2008)

Other titles you may enjoy:

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan (2007)
Fact and fiction blend in a historical novel that chronicles the relationship between seminal architect Frank Lloyd Wright and Mamah Cheney, from their meeting, when they were each married to another, to the clandestine affair that shocked Chicago society.

The Emancipator’s Wife by Barbara Hambly (2005)
In 1865, in the wake of her husband's assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln struggles to cope amid the animosity and confusion that surrounds her, in a historical novel that captures the saga of one of the most misunderstood women in American history.

Harriet and Isabella by Patricia O’Brien (2008)
A novelization based on a nineteenth-century sex scandal traces how the downfall of Henry Ward Beecher divided the nation and severed the loving relationship between his sisters, author Harriet Beecher Stowe and suffragist Isabella Beecher Hooker.