Category Archives: 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 Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein

The title refers to the setting of this novel in the northernmost part of Norway, in the summer, where two unlikely Americans meet at a Viking Museum. I need to back up to set the scene for this unusual, affecting story.

Francis, a young artist, has just broken up with her boyfriend, who tells her that painting is of no use to the world: “What you do doesn’t help anybody.” Other parts of Francis’s life are broken: her parents are divorcing and her younger sister Sarah is getting married to a man that her parents dislike. Everyone is unhappy. Francis has the opportunity for an internship in Lofoten, a group of islands 95 miles north of the Arctic circle and it seems like the right time to get away. She’ll be working on something called the Yellow Project.

Yasha, a young man of 17, lives with his father in Brighton Beach where they own a bakery. Their lives are broken, too. Yasha and his father Vassily immigrated from Russia 10 years ago, but Yasha’s mother never followed them and refuses to communicate with them. They both miss her terribly and after Yasha’s high school graduation they decide to return to Russia to find her. Vassily suffers a heart attack in Russia and Yasha, according to his father’s wishes, takes his body to–you guessed it–Lofoten, to bury him as he wished. In the time Yasha spends in Lofoten, he finds much more than he ever imagined–he grows up, for one thing.

The joy of reading this unusual novel is in Dinerstein’s writing, which is circular, elliptical, and utterly captivating. She manages to convey the way we think and converse–the serious and mundane things that crash about simultaneously in our heads; the emotions we can’t or won’t convey; and the feelings of loss and loneliness that we all share. The setting and supporting characters are delineated in a few quick strokes, but their voices are unique.

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.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown)

God in RuinsI was fortunate to get permission to download a copy of Kate Atkinson’s terrific forthcoming novel, A God in Ruins. I  began reading it immediately, ready for a treat. This new novel focuses on Teddy, a minor character from her previous novel, Life After Life; Atkinson calls this one a “companion piece” rather than a sequel. I read it over the course of 3 days, and now I’m sorry I’m finished; I should have made it last longer.

Teddy Todd is the younger brother of Ursula, the main character from Life After Life. The central event in Teddy’s life is his World War II service as an RAF bomber pilot. During the War, he was never sure if he’d return, if there would be an “after;,” his survival makes him determined to be kind and enjoy the life he’s been given after he’s been responsible for so much death. He marries his childhood sweetheart, Nancy; they have one child, Viola, and two grandchildren. Life isn’t always easy, but he takes it as it comes, reveling in the English countryside, doing his best to love the difficult people around him. This is the bare bones on which Atkinson hangs her absorbing story of how four generations deal with what life sent them.

Atkinson plays with time, deconstructing the narrative in many ways: by mixing up time periods in each chapter, by casually dropping information about the future, by repeating events from a different character’s point of view, and by foreshadowing. One event calls up another, filling in details, adding roundness and resonance to characters and events. Teddy’s grandson, exploring in the attic finds Teddy’s war medals and keepsakes. These objects return in later chapters when we learn more about Teddy’s war experiences; because we’ve already thought about the objects when Sunny found them, their meaning is more emotional and faceted.

Ursula makes tantalizing cameo appearances in this novel; she’s Teddy’s beloved sister, offering advice and support. For those of us who read Life After Life, when we hear about her death, we’re startled–didn’t she keep on living? Other characters, like Teddy’s cranky daughter Viola and her children Sunny and Bertie, step off the page, full of life and longing, shaped by the times they live in but very much their own people.

The novel is filled with wonderful humor. Teddy’s daughter, Viola, pushes him from his house to “independent living” then to a “care home.” In his nineties, Teddy reflects that “living in captivity” has “clearly prolonged his life.” The chapter describing Viola’s visit to Teddy in the care home is hilarious and sad, a perceptive set piece on how we treat the elderly.

The sections set during the war, especially Teddy’s experiences as a pilot and wing commander are painfully vivid, capturing Teddy’s inchoate fears, his relationship with his crew, and the emotions he feels as he sees the destruction they’ve brought down on German cities.  These sections fill out Teddy’s character in a most rewarding way.

Atkinson has complete control over her narrative and characters;  it’s such a pleasure to surrender to her stories. I’ve read all of Atkinson’s novels, starting with Behind the Scenes at the Museum; sorry I can’t read them again for the first time.

 

 

We Were the Mulvaneys by Joyce Carol Oates (Penguin, 2006)

We MulvaneysI’m late reading this; started listening to it years ago and never got very far.  I find that the unrelenting grimness of Oates’s novels often puts me off; I have to be in the mood. I’m about 75% through We Were the Mulvaneys and starting to worry about how it will all end–not well, I’m sure for the Mulvaneys, who have already lost so much. I’ll read to the end, but I’m hoping that there will be redemption for at least some of the characters.

Oates has such command of her material; she’s knows exactly where she’s taking us. She sets the scene beautifully at the beginning of this novel–we understand exactly the status and the role of the Mulvaneys–and their charismatic appeal– in their small town  in upstate New York,  classic Oates territory. As the story progresses, the personalities and proclivities of the characters propel the story.

Corinne and Michael Mulvaney are living a happy life at High Point Farm with four children and assorted dogs, cats, and farm animals. The eldest son, Mike Jr, known as “Mule” Mulvaney from his days as a football star at the local high school, now works with Dad at Mulvaney Roofing. Second son Patrick, “Pinch,” is the straight-A student; he’s serious and aloof. Beautiful, popular, innocent cheerleader daughter Marianne–Button–joins her mother at church, while Judd, the baby of the family, tells the story of what happened that year when life changed for the storybook Mulvaneys.

The problems begin when Marianne goes to the Valentine’s Day Prom with a nice local boy, but comes home the following morning bruised and with a bloody dress. The unthinkable has happened and the Mulvaneys are unprepared. Mike, Sr. sees Marianne as a symbol of his inability to keep his family safe and he can’t look at her, reminded as he is by his own failings. Marianne feels culpable and debased. Other family members react in their own ways and the fortunes of the Mulvaneys spiral down, their lives out of control and they’re unable to help each other. Oates tells the story of the following twenty-five years in the lives of the Mulvaney parents and children as they search for grace and forgiveness.

If you like We Were the Mulvaneys, try Oates’s Little Bird of Heavenone of my favorites of her novels.

Thinks by David Lodge (Viking, 2001)

ThinksThought about thought about the world–and the chemistry between men and women–are the themes of this 2001 novel, in Lodge’s inimitable, sly style. His novels are serious and funny at the same time–a unique combination–and often poke fun at academics. I’ve read and enjoyed several: Small World, Nice Work, Paradise News, and grabbed a paperback copy of Thinks at a used book sale.

Ralph Messenger, Director of the Center for Cognitive Science at the University of Gloucester, spends his days thinking about the nature of consciousness and his chances of adultery with the women on campus. Enter Helen Reed, recently widowed novelist and visiting professor in the Creative Writing program. Helen’s intrigued by Ralph’s field of study; Ralph enjoys their interesting conversations and hopes to get Helen in bed. Helen is interested but worries about the morality of sleeping with Ralph after his wife  befriends her.

As the book progresses, there are conversations about what consciousness is–for Ralph and his colleagues it’s a problem to be solved, which amuses Helen, who sees consciousness from the writer’s point of view, as the “stuff” of the novel. Helen’s conversations with Ralph spill over into her teaching and she gives her students an assignment to write an essay “What it’s Like to Be a Bat” in the style of a well-known modern author. The results are pretty hilarious. Helen also wonders what’s happened to the consciousness of her deceased husband, Martin.

Ralph is conducting an experiment whereby he tape records his thoughts and Helen keeps a diary, so the reader gets to experience the same events from very different points of view. The reader knows what they’re both thinking, but their individual thoughts, their “consciousnesses” if you will, are opaque to each other, which provides the engine for the plot . There’s lots of information about theories of consciousness; characters have great discussions about how we know what we know, but with Lodge’s usual light touch, he inserts this in the most entertaining way.

 

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

Exiles ReturnI discovered this lovely novel because I’m a big fan of The Hare with Amber Eyes, a memoir written by the author’s grandson, Edmund de Waal. (More about that book at the end of this post.) Elisabeth de Waal survived “interesting times” as the Chinese proverb would have it; that is, she and her family survived World War II, as so many Jews did not. She was born Elisabeth von Ephrussi, in 1899, daughter of one of the great banking houses of Europe, growing up in a fabulous palais on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. She studied philosophy, law, and economics, and corresponded with Rilke, to whom she sent her poems. The Exiles Return is one of several novels she wrote; it was never published in her lifetime.

The Exiles Return is about three people who come to Vienna from the United States in the early 1950s for very different reasons. Austria, like much of Europe, was a mess after the War and it was partitioned by the Allies, who occupied it until 1955. Kuno Adler is a medical researcher who hopes to reclaim his old job; Theophil Kanakis is a wealthy Greek who hopes to reclaim a life of partying and subversion; Resi is a young girl whose Austrian immigrant parents hope that she will recover from depression in a new environment. These three people give  us entree into different parts of society; there are complex layers of expectations, disappointments, and thinly veiled violence that operate on their lives.

The pleasure of this novel is in the complexity of the characters and de Waal’s refusal to make things simple. The publisher compares her writing to Irene Nemirovsky’s books about World War II in France, and there is something to that comparison, but for me, de Waal is the more engaging writer.

Back to The Hare with Amber Eyes: in one of the great family memoirs of recent years, Edmund de Waal combines memoir with art and history in the most compelling way. The hare of the title is a piece of netsuke that becomes a leitmotif in the story of the Ephrussi family, who started in Odessa as grain traders and became a banking family in Vienna and Paris that rivaled the Rothschilds. Because Edmund de Waal is a well-known ceramicist, the memoir is not  just about a piece of art, but in the poignant and exquisite way de Waal tells the story, the book itself becomes a work of art.