Category Archives: 2015 Fiction

Small Mercies by Eddie Joyce (Penguin)

Small MerciesI loved this family story, a first novel that’s full of life and characters that live beyond the page. It starts off slowly, building the reader’s relationship with the Amendola family, especially Gail, the Irish girl from Brooklyn’s Bay Ridge neighborhood, who married into an Italian Staten Island family and learned to live with the rules of the culture she adopted, for  better or worse.

The novel takes place over the course of one week, but with a generous use of flashbacks we learn all about the Amendolas, what they think and feel. Wife Gail and her retired firefighter husband Michael had 3 sons, but the youngest, Robert, also a firefighter, was killed on 9/11. It’s now 10 years later, but the family is still reeling from the loss as they prepare for the birthday celebration of their grandson Bobby, Jr., this small son of their own youngest son, who has never known his father.

I always hope that the first pages of a novel will  tell me something wonderful about what to expect in the way of the writing. Each chapter in Small Mercies is told from the point of view of a family member, and on the second page, in a chapter told from Gail’s perspective, I found the nugget that let me know that I was in the hands of a great storyteller. Gail’s on her way out: “A quick look in the mirror. Not for vanity, not anymore, but for its older sister: dignity.” Brilliant. Joyce has something to say and says it well.

The Amendolas are part of a close-knit culture of Italians and Irish in Staten Island; what one character calls “the servants’ quarters of the city.” They share the neighborhood rituals and enthusiasms: liquor and sports anchor this community. There is some chafing at expectations: oldest son Peter couldn’t wait to get out and as a teenager rode the ferry to Manhattan to remind himself of where he wanted to be. But even as a successful lawyer, with a WASP wife, he’s unable to shake the feeling he’ll never fit in. Middle son Franky never recovered from the death of his younger brother and turned to alcohol to anesthetize his grief. Bobby’s widow, Tina, still tied closely to the Amendolas, wonders if 10 years is long enough to be a single mother as she starts to date. Gail and Michael have their own issues to work out and there’s reference to the ways they pleased and disappointed their own parents.

Joyce brings us into the thoughts of these characters and some terrific minor folks as well. He clearly loves them all. I enjoyed the structure, which allows him to introduce depth and reveal backstory. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a single character, but these alternate with Gail’s chapters, always coming back to her experiences and point of view. As the reader moves through the novel, hearing each characters’ thoughts, the characters become more rounded, more alive, and the story becomes more emotional and revealing. It’s an example of how domestic fiction, in the hands of a good writer, can be completely absorbing.

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The Turner House by Angela Flournoy (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Turner HouseThis is a terrific family story, combining compelling characters and social history.  Flournoy does a great job of creating fully rounded characters–even the siblings that appear only briefly are real people. I suspect (and hope) she has more stories about the Turners  that didn’t make it into the novel.

The Turner family has lived on Yarrow St. in Detroit for over 50 years. Francis and Viola raised 13 children there and witnessed the precipitous decline of the city’s East Side. Widowed and elderly, Viola is now in danger of losing the house, which is worth less than the mortgage payments. Her children and grandchildren have strong–and different–feelings about whether the house should be saved.

From the oldest–Cha-Cha–to the youngest–Lelah–everyone weighs in with an opinion or a plan, depending on what the house means to them. Cha-Cha feels responsible for making decisions and providing for his mother; he irritates his younger siblings with his need for control. Lelah, the youngest, is secretly living in the old house; she fears that her brothers and sisters will learn about her gambling addiction. Troy, a policeman, has a scheme to make money by selling the house illegally. Turner focuses on these and several other siblings but we get a terrific sense the family dynamics. With all these stories and family collisions, there’s also a subplot about a “haint” that appeared to Francis and now Cha-Cha. The meaning of the “haint” is unclear to Cha-Cha, and he worries that it’s providing a message that he needs to understand. Turner cleverly doesn’t let the “haint”  turns the novel into a ghost story, but uses it as a device to reveal some of the dark undercurrents in the family’s history.

Flournoy’s descriptions of the Turner family dynamics and the house that holds them together is filled with the family dynamics we all know; it’s a universal story of how we love and struggle with our parents and siblings.

Wednesday at Book Expo 2015

This is one of my favorite events of the year–a chance to meet authors and hear about forthcoming books, even take some home. The best. Today was the opening day, a half day really, starting at 12:30 with Laura Miller of salon.com interviewing Jonathan Franzen. A big crowd as you can imagine. Franzen had just come back from a birdwatching trip in east Africa and acknowledged that he was having a hard time inserting himself back into talking about the book, Purity, due out Sept. 1. He was, I’m going to say it, more than just a little inarticulate. I took notes as best I could and some interesting tidbits are below.

He talked about how each novel gets harder to write, because the early novels mine the easily accessible material, the stuff that’s most present. With each novel, he digs deeper, ultimately into areas that are difficult to write about. He talked about process–how he starts with an outline but once he starts writing  he always realizes that the book as outlined will never work. In fact, he wrote the first chapter of Purity quickly, based on the outline and was stuck; he didn’t go back to it until a year later.

Miller asked questions about the relationship between plot and character and Franzen spent some time discussing the conundrum of getting the reader to turn the pages in a novel where character takes precedence over plot.

An interesting note: the German edition of the book can’t be called Purity–the word carries too much baggage there.

From that interview I went up to the exhibit floor and waited on line to get a signed poster from Maira Kalman from her new book Beloved Dog. I told her that I had seen the small collection she curated at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum this winter and how interesting it was. She asked if I remembered seeing Toscanini’s pants and she told me that they belonged to her. She loaned them to the museum for the exhibit. (She also has the suit jacket.) I’d love to know what else she’s collected over the years. Of course I told her how much I loved the New Yorker “stans” cover.

Late in the afternoon, laden down with advance copies of books and some nifty canvas bags, I made my way back home. I’ll be back to the Javits at 9 tomorrow.