Day 784: The Heart Goes Last

Cover for The Heart Goes LastStan and Charmaine are living in their car. They used to live a comfortable middle-class life, but the downturn was worst in the Northeast and both of them lost their jobs and then their home. There has been a breakdown in society. The streets are dangerous and normal services are defunct.

Charmaine has been earning a bit as a waitress in a bar, and Stan has been looking for work. He is even forced to go to his shady brother Colin for help when it has always been the other way around. Colin offers him a job, but Stan decides to wait a while, knowing that the job is likely to be illegal.

On the TV at the bar, Charmain sees an ad for the Positron Project, which offers employment and housing. When Stan and Charmain attend an introductory session, they’re not told very much except that if they return, they will not be allowed to leave. They must be ready to commit to the project.

Stan and Charmaine decide to give up their freedom for stability, even though Colin warns them not to go there. When they commit to the project, they find that the whole community is built around a prison. To create enough work around the prison, the staff must alternate one month inside the prison as inmates, one month out, sharing their house with another couple that is in when they are out.

This situation doesn’t seem to disturb them, and they continue on for a year. Then Charmaine becomes romantically involved with their male alternate, who calls himself Max. This relationship eventually leads to discoveries about the true nature of the project.

link to NetgalleyThe Heart Goes Last allows Atwood full rein of her acerbic sense of humor and biting satire. It is reminiscent of the darker excesses of the Maddaddam trilogy but without any very sympathetic characters. Instead, it gets progressively more absurd as it continues. Its references to the current political climate are obvious. Although I found this novel entertaining, I did not enjoy it as much as I have some of Atwood’s other novels.

Note: Caroline of Rosemary and Reading Glasses has written this fascinating post comparing this novel to Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Related Posts

The Handmaid’s Tale

Oryx and Crake

The Stone Mattress


Day 783: Let Me Tell You

Cover for Let Me Tell YouAlthough I almost always enjoy stories by Shirley Jackson, I was surprised and delighted to find myself even more captivated by the personal essays included in the collection Let Me Tell You. The book is divided into several sections, some of short stories, some of essays.

The first set of uncollected and unpublished short stories was interesting, although many were not her best. There were some bizarre or macabre stories, but the ones I enjoyed most seemed to be based on her own real-life preoccupations, a couple, for example, dealing with a professor’s affairs with his students. Her husband was quite the philanderer, apparently.

The essays, though, were centered around her home life and were funny and imaginative. Some are about the behavior of her children and the chaos of family life. In others, she imagines scenarios such as her toaster and her waffle iron having a feud because she toasted a frozen waffle. Or her two-pronged fork competing with her four-pronged fork. These essays are much more domestic than I expected, more whimsical, and funnier. I am now interested in rereading Life Among the Savages, her memoir about her family life.

link to NetgalleyThe last section of the book consists of essays on writing. I found myself absorbed by this section. I have read several books on writing, but they seldom include any advice that I found practical. Jackson’s essays include some very specific information about how she writes that I found revelatory.

I never thought I’d prefer essays to stories, but in this case, although the stories are enjoyable, I found the essays more entertaining and engaging.

Related Posts

Stone Mattress

Family Furnishings

St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves

Day 782: Literary Wives! The Silent Wife

Cover for The Silent WifeToday is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club in which we discuss the depiction of wives in modern fiction. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives! If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J.
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

Although The Silent Wife is billed as a psychological thriller, if that is actually its intent instead of marketing hype, it fails. I see it as more of an in-depth exploration of a dysfunctional relationship and particularly of the character of one unusual woman.

Jodie’s husband Todd of 20 years has just been through a depression, but he seems to be improving. On the surface, their marriage is fine. She is a highly educated woman who enjoys making a perfect home and working part-time with her therapy clients. Todd’s remodeling business keeps him out of the house a lot, and he enjoys drinking after work with his buddies, but she doesn’t seem to mind this and is always glad to see him come home. Although he is a serial womanizer, she has long learned to live with this fact and ignores it.

This information is the first odd note in the novel, because we have learned that Jodie’s father was also a womanizer, and Jodie was a witness to the havoc it created. We wonder immediately how she can accept this situation in her own marriage.

What Jodie doesn’t know is that Todd has embarked on a more serious affair. He is sleeping with the 20-something daughter of his boyhood friend Dean. Although he doesn’t remember proposing to her, suddenly he has a fiancée and a baby on the way, and Natasha is pushing him to tell Jodie.

When Jodie learns about the affair, it is through the furious Dean. Todd hasn’t mentioned a thing, so she doesn’t take it seriously. Even when he tells her he’s moving out, on the morning of the event, she still thinks he’ll come back.

Although I didn’t find this novel to be a thriller, we know from the first sentences that a crime is involved, and the novel is an effective psychological portrait of a woman who can ignore anything she doesn’t want to see. Combined with a man who avoids anything confrontational, this is an explosive mixture. While Todd allows himself to be pushed into one untenable position after another, Jodie continues to disregard what is happening.

The novel is effective and it kept my interest, but it indulges a little too often and too long in its deep discussions of psychology. Perhaps this is supposed to be a reflection of how Jodie thinks, although it’s not always presented that way, but these passages could have been more succinct and effective. Added to that, the novel is only moderately well written. Still, the plot keeps you engaged.

What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife? In what way does the woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Literary Wives logoI think that this novel is too particular to this couple to make any broad statements about being a wife. But Jodie has definitely created her own image of her relationship to Todd. She has prided herself on making the perfect, calm, immaculate home, on providing beautifully cooked, delicious meals, on leading her own life and letting Todd lead his. But this life does not seem to consist of any sharing on an emotional level. In fact, it survives by keeping secrets.

Her reaction to Todd’s cheating seems inexplicable at first, considering her parents went through the same thing. Instead of it being a deal-breaker, she decides not to let it bother her. She puts it away from her. This is the character trait that I found fascinating. Her father’s unfaithfulness made her mother unhappy. So, she decides not to let it make her unhappy. She continues not to even acknowledge the truth of other things that might make her unhappy, and she pursues this course through one unpalatable event after another. But then, we find she has plenty of practice in hiding things from herself.

Related Posts

The Child Garden

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Mercy Snow

Day 781: Dandy Gilver and A Deadly Measure of Brimstone

Cover for A Deadly Measure of BrimstoneThings have been fairly stressful in the Gilver household. Dandy’s husband Hugh and both boys, Donald and Teddy, are recovering from a serious illness. Just as they begin to improve, Pallister, the butler, and Mrs. Tilling, the cook, are also felled. Dandy and her partner, Alec Osborne, haven’t had a case in months, and when Alec announces it’s time he looked for a wife, Dandy is afraid their detecting days will soon be over. Then, she has a letter from Mr. Addie and Mrs. Bowie, asking them to make an inquiry.

The job turns out to be helpful for all parties. Mr. Addie and Mrs. Bowie are upset about their mother, who died recently on a visit to a spa in Moffat. She reportedly died of a heart attack, but her children insist she had no heart trouble. Dandy thinks everyone will be served by renting a house in Moffat and enrolling the invalids at the spa. Alec goes early, pretending to have a bad back.

Once they begin investigating Mrs. Addie’s death, something seems suspicious. The police sergeant says she was scared by a ghost. He also says that although Dr. Laidlaw was there at the spa, they called in Dr. Ramsay from the village to sign the death certificate. That Dr. Laidlaw apparently refused to sign the death certificate seems suspicious to Dandy, and when she questions Dr. Ramsay, he proves to be an idiot who says that everyone dies of a heart attack. Dr. Laidlaw herself has a violent reaction to mentions of Mrs. Addie.

On her investigations of the spa, Dandy finds the attendant who prepared Mrs. Addie for burial. She says that Mrs. Addie was dirty, even under her fingernails, so Dandy begins to think she may have died outside. In the meantime Alec determines that Mrs. Addie did not believe in ghosts so would be unlikely to have been scared to death by one. Mr. Laidlaw, Dr. Laidlaw’s brother, also seems a shifty sort of person. Dandy is a little worried, because Alec seems protective of Dr. Laidlaw, a scattered young woman.

Dandy and Alec soon believe something odd is going on at the spa. For one thing, Hugh has stopped being grumpy! The arrival of a bunch of mediums makes everything even stranger.

Dandy Gilver mysteries, set in post-World War I Scotland, are light-hearted, funny, and entertaining. I am always happy to see another one coming out.

Related Posts

Dandy Gilver and a Bothersome Number of Corpses

The Child Garden

Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death


Day 780: A Place We Knew Well

Cover for A Place We Knew WellI was a kid during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and I don’t remember it as having much effect on our lives. I do remember the ridiculous duck-and-cover exercises and the display of model fall-out shelters, but I only remember one family that had one. I grew up in Michigan, not Florida, though, where things were apparently different.

Wes Avery realizes that something is up early on Friday, October 19, 1962. He is a former air force gunner, who took part in bombing raids over Japan during World War II. When the nearby McCoy Air Force Base begins a build-up, he notices right away.

The rest of his family is absorbed in other activities so at first doesn’t notice his concern. His wife Sarah is depressed and traumatized over a hysterectomy that was performed on her without her consent a couple of years before, after a miscarriage (sadly, all too common at that time). Her doctor is treating her with far too many pills. Charlotte, their daughter, has been picked for the Homecoming court. She is worried that she will be the only girl without a date until Wes’s employee and best friend Steve suggests that another employee, Emilio, a Cuban refugee from a good family, take her.

Emilio and Charlotte are happy about this solution, but Sarah tries to talk Charlotte into waiting, knowing that other boys whom Sarah considers more suitable will ask her. Wes has to field arguments from Sarah, who obviously thinks he tries too much to please everyone. Added to all this tension, as everyone’s awareness of the situation with Cuba grows, is a family member’s reappearance, which makes West feel disloyal to Sarah.

link to NetgalleyThis novel is effective at building tension and sympathy for Wes in the situation in which he finds himself. Despite what has happened to Sarah, it is not as good at evoking sympathy for her. Although her preoccupations turn out to have a deeper basis, if only in her own mind, they seem trivial compared to the possible immanence of war and the difficulties Wes finds himself in. I think we should feel more deeply for Sarah, but for some reason, we don’t, perhaps because her concern over Charlotte’s first date and her apparent snobbery seems so ridiculous. (Of course, there is a reason for that.)

However, overall I think this novel does a great job of evoking time and place. I think the closing chapter, a letter written in present time, is a little too didactic, though, and serves as an anticlimax even though we want to know what happened to the characters.

Related Posts

The House We Grew Up In

Amy and Isabelle

Once Upon a River

Day 779: The Quickening Maze

Cover for The Quickening MazeThe Quickening Maze is the first book I read purposefully because it’s one of the finalists for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction. By coincidence, I had already read half a dozen finalists and winners, and when I learned that Helen of She Reads Novels was trying to read them all, I decided to join her.

This novel is based on events in the life of the poet John Clare, known as the “peasant poet,” a man of rural background who was steeped in his natural surroundings. Unfortunately, Clare is having some mental problems and is staying in an asylum in Epping Forest. Nearby is Alfred Tennyson, whose brother Septimus also resides there.

John Clare seems to be doing well under the treatment of Dr. Matthew Allen. When we first meet him, his movements are relatively unrestrained and except for some confusion about a girl he knew named Mary, he seems sane enough. He is soon given a key to the gate so that he can walk in the forest.

Another patient important to the novel is Margaret, who is regularly transfixed by visions of angels and messages from god. At one point as Clare’s mental state deteriorates, he mistakes Margaret for his Mary.

Dr. Allen seems to have a gift for dealing with his patients during a time when mental health practices were deplorable. However, he also has a fascination with risk, and soon he is trying to talk his friends and the Tennysons into investing in his new invention, a machine for following the shape of furniture and carving additional pieces.

Hannah Allen at 17 has decided that Alfred Tennyson is the man she’d like to marry. She boldly begins seeking him out, not realizing that he is preoccupied with his brother and with grief over the death of a good friend.

Although this novel is more about the internal workings of some of the characters’ minds than its historical setting, it is beautifully written and atmospheric. I was interested in this narrow slice of history and curious to look at some of Clare’s poetry.

Related Posts

Under the Wide and Starry Sky

Parrot and Olivier in America

A Good Hard Look