Review 1526: Olive, Again

Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Review 1523: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a life of routine. She’s worked at the same company for years, doing the same job. She stops at the same stores on the same days and buys the same things. She has no friends, and her only human contact besides work and shopkeepers is her Wednesday phone call from her abusive mother. She doesn’t quite understand many interactions and often offends people. She also has a scar on one side of her face.

At a rock concert, she decides she has seen the man for her, the lead singer. She begins preparing a systematic approach to attract him. Around the same time, she meets the new corporate IT guy, Raymond, who is kind to her.

I have commented before about how much I dislike the custom of comparing a book to another book in its publicity. I understand that publicists are trying to build on the other book’s popularity, but if I loved the other book, I am always skeptical that I will find any resemblance. In this case, the comparison kept me from reading this book because I felt that the book it was compared to, A Man Called Ove, was cheap and manipulative. I finally read Eleanor Oliphant because a friend recommended it.

I have to say that I found this novel endearing and touching. At first, I was afraid that all of its humor would be around Eleanor’s eccentricities, but the depiction of her is more nuanced than that. You grow to care about Eleanor and the other characters as her friendship with Raymond opens her up to other people. There are hints of a horrific past, and you eventually come to admire Eleanor’s courage and resilience.

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Review 1518: Chances Are

When Lincoln decides to sell the cottage on Martha’s Vineyard that has long been in his mother’s family, he thinks it’s a good opportunity to reunite with his friends from college, Mickey and Teddy. Although it’s more than 40 years since they spent Memorial Day weekend at this cottage, they’ve kept in touch all these years. Back in the day, they were the three students at an elite college who did not share their classmates’ blue-blooded, wealthy backgrounds.

Being on the island brings back memories of Jacey, the girl all three of them loved. She also shared that last Memorial Day weekend with them. Then she left and apparently disappeared from the face of the earth.

Lincoln, a successful real estate dealer who’s had some difficulties since 2008, begins looking into Jacey’s disappearance. Teddy, an editor who sometimes suffers from mental illness, is troubled by his memories of that weekend.

This novel explores friendship, difficult relationships, and even muses on fate. It is well written, as Russo’s novels always are, and engaging. I haven’t had as much enjoyment from Russo’s latest efforts as I did for his earlier ones, but this one comes close to being as good as, say, Empire Falls or Nobody’s Fool.

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Review 1513: Literary Wives! The Dutch House

Today is another review for the Literary Wives blogging club, in which we discuss the depiction of wives in fiction. If you have read the book, please participate by leaving comments on any of our blogs.We would like to welcome a new member, Cynthia of I Love Days, who joins us for the first time today!

Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

Cynthia of I Love Days
Eva of Paperback Princess
Lynn of Smoke and Mirrors
Naomi of Consumed By Ink

* * *

I seldom have been disappointed by Ann Patchett even when I’m not sure the book sounds interesting. The phrase “dark fairy tale” was used on the blurb of The Dutch House, which inclined me not to read the book, as that is not my thing, but I’m glad I did.

Danny and Maeve Conroy live in the Dutch House with their father. The house has this name not because of its style but because a Dutch family lived there. It is an astounding house, glass throughout the first floor and enormous, with a third-floor ballroom.

Danny and Maeve’s mother left when Danny was four. He doesn’t remember her, but Maeve, who is seven years older, wishes she could see her mother again. Living with an aloof father, Cyril, they become dependent upon each other. Still, they are happy in the Dutch House.

At first, they don’t pay much attention to Cyril’s friend, Andrea. She is around for a while then disappears for months, then reappears. They don’t like her, but their father doesn’t seem to like her that much, either. However, they realize later as adults, Andrea wanted the Dutch House, and Andrea gets what she wants. Eventually, their father marries her, and she moves in with her small daughters, Norma and Bright.

When Danny is still in high school, Cyril unexpectedly dies, and the events following his death provide the meat of this novel. Told by jumping backward and forward in time, the story is about how Cyril’s miscalculation in buying the Dutch House for a wife who is appalled by it echoes across three generations of the family. It’s a warm novel about cruelty and kindness, rage and forgiveness. It’s really good.

What does this novel say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

I liked this book much more for our purposes in this club than some of the others, because it provides a nuanced and insightful look at marriage, although not necessarily at the individuals who are part of the marriage. Warning that this section contains spoilers, although I have tried to be suggestive with them rather than stating exactly what they are.

Although the primary focus of this novel is on the relationship between Danny and Maeve and how it is affected by the losses of first their mother and then their inheritance, there are three marriages that are secondary but still important to the book. The first is the marriage between Danny and Maeve’s parents, Cyril and Elna, which we don’t understand until the end of the book.

Cyril marries Elna immediately after removing her from a convent and never really understands what she is like. Elna, who is dedicated to serving the poor, thinks she is married to a poor man, while Cyril has been amassing money through building purchases and development. Cyril surprises Elna twice with disastrous results that reveal how little he understands her, once when he buys her the Dutch House, which she finds overwhelming, and once when he decides to get her portrait painted, an activity she will not suffer. Elna leaves the marriage when she finds no role for herself in her own house because of loving servants who won’t allow her to do anything. The purpose of her life is service, so she cannot bear this purposelessness. I don’t think she intends to desert them, but when Maeve develops diabetes from stress after she goes to India, Cyril tells Elna never to return and divorces her.

Cyril is never communicative, but he seemingly shuts down after she leaves, to the point where both his children believe that he doesn’t like children. I think this shows that he loves Elna but is incapable of understanding her. Elna realizes she has made a mistake by going to India but is too embarrassed to return home. I think Cyril believes that the way to cherish her is to shower her with things, when really she needs a voice, a role, and a feeling of being needed.

The next marriage is that of Cyril and Andrea. This marriage is almost always filtered through the perceptions of Danny and Maeve, who dislike Andrea. To their minds, Andrea marries Cyril to get the house, and while that is certainly true, we learn at the end of the book that there was more to it. Why Cyril marries Andrea is more difficult to comprehend, especially when we realize that Cyril believes Andrea married him for the house, too. He doesn’t understand her any better than he understood Elna. That becomes clear when he fails to protect his children’s interests because “Andrea is a good mother.” We can guess that Andrea’s looks, youth, and interest in the house are the attractions, and her sheer force of will results in a marriage that has disastrous results for her stepchildren. It’s hard to force myself to see this marriage from Andrea’s side because of her behavior, though, to her stepchildren. I suspect that, like Celeste does with Maeve, Andrea has blamed all her problems with Cyril on his children.

The final marriage is that of Danny and Celeste. A revealing scene takes place after they have been married for years, when Danny says he sees her clearly for just a second and then stops seeing her. Danny marries her because she’s the least trouble of any women he’s dated, and he continues the family tradition of paying little attention to her. Celeste, for her part, wants to marry a doctor and assumes he will become one because he is in medical school, even though he has no intention of doing so (but doesn’t tell her that, because he’s as communicative with her as Cyril was with everyone). She also is very jealous of Maeve and blames her for everything she doesn’t like about their marriage. Although her objections often seem demanding and irrational, it is clear that Danny is much closer to Maeve than to Celeste, which would be frustrating to any wife.

Again, it’s hard for me to see the situation clearly from her point of view, because although Danny marries her, perhaps like Cyril marries Andrea, out of some weird sort of inertia, the kind that continues along a path even though the path is clearly the wrong one, she is also super self-adapting until they are actually married. And that’s the quality he marries her for, so the change in adaptability seems like a deception. Although he claims to spend a lot of time defending Maeve to Celeste and vice versa, he doesn’t seem to see Celeste’s positive characteristics except in a few situations.

So, what does this novel say about wives? A wife, like anyone else, needs to be seen and understood and needs a purpose that is fulfilling to her. Also, it is clear that for two of the wives, it was easier for them to blame their marital problems on other people than to look more closely at the person they married. So, in this novel, neither the husbands nor the wives truly see each other.

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Review 1511: Nocturnes

Nocturnes is a collection of five loosely linked short stories all on the themes of music and night. A few of them are linked a little more closely by repeating characters. All but one feature struggling musicians.

In “Crooner,” the unnamed narrator is an Eastern European guitarist eking out a living in Venice when he meets Tony Gardner, a once-famous singer his mother listened to. When Tony invites him to help serenade his wife, Lindy, he learns that Tony is so eager to make a comeback that he is willing to give up something he loves.

In “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Ray, a middle-aged English language instructor, is invited to stay with his old school friends, Charlie and Emily. Once there, though, he finds he’s been invited to be a negative contrast to Charlie, showing how much more successful Charlie is. He finds common ground with Emily only in their shared taste in music.

In “Malvern Hills,” a would-be singer-songwriter is staying with his sister and helping out at her café when he meets two professional musicians, Tibs and Sonja, on holiday. He unwittingly gets involved in the breakup of their marriage.

The narrator of “Nocturne” is a gifted saxophone player whose ex-wife and manager convince him that he would be successful if he wasn’t so ugly. Reluctantly, he agrees to have plastic surgery. In a hotel recovering from his procedure, he meets Lindy Gardner, also recovering from plastic surgery.

In “Cellists,” it is perhaps the same narrator from the first story who tells the tale of Tibor, a gifted young cellist he and his friends met seven years earlier. Tibor’s personality changes once he is taken under the wing of Eloise McCormack, who claims to be a virtuoso cellist.

This is a book that explores the place of music in each character’s life, and in some cases, the character’s commitments to music or to fame. Although there is a lot going on in these ultimately sad tales, they felt unsatisfying to me in some way. I felt that some of the situations were ridiculously unlikely, as well. This is a book I read for my James Tait Black project.

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Review 1509: Normal People

In school, Marianne and Connell ignore each other. They come from different social backgrounds. Marianne is from a wealthy family, while Connell’s mother is the cleaner for Marianne’s family. Although Connell is popular, Marianne is bullied and ignored.

Away from school, the two become lovers. However, a misunderstanding about their relationship causes Connell to hurt her and they break up.

At college in Dublin, they meet again. This time, Marianne is popular with a set of bright students and Connell feels like an outsider.

Normal People is the minutely observed story of a friendship and an on-again, off-again love affair. It has been widely lauded, but it was hard for me to be interested in this story of two very immature people. The relationship is a long series of misunderstandings that separate the two but do nothing to teach them to communicate more honestly.

It’s not that I disliked this novel. It’s just that I found myself getting impatient while wondering where it was going. When it finally got there, the conclusion was underwhelming.

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Review 1506: The Broom of the System

We first meet Lenore Beadsman in 1981 as a 15-year-old on a visit to her sister at Mount Holyoke. There, three guys from Amherst invade the girls’ dorm room and more or less sexually assault them, except Lenore, who leaves. The point of this part?

We meet her again working as a receptionist in Cleveland and having an affair with her boss, Rick Vigorous. Her great-grandmother has disappeared from a nursing home along with a substantial number of patients and some staff. The manager of the home, which is owned by Lenore’s wealthy father, has been asked to keep the incident quiet, but he asks Lenore to contact her father. She is unable to reach him, however.

I tried hard to read this novel, which I know is considered brilliant and was recommended by my brother, but I just couldn’t get on the same wavelength with it. Though I know it was considered innovative in its time (1987), it seemed dated to me, both in its bizarre zany humor, which reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces, Tim Robbins, or Richard Brautigan, and in its treatment of women. I read about a quarter of it but saw myself completely lose interest when the cockatiel started spouting break-up lines. The novel just seemed too ridiculous, and I also felt it wasn’t going anywhere. The hyper-intellectual dialogue seemed completely unlikely. It also seemed pretentious.

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Review 1502: Wild Decembers

Although the Bugler and Brennan families have been feuding for generations, when Mick Bugler inherits land in the mountains of Western Ireland near the Brennans, he and Joseph Brennan are disposed to be friends. They are, that is, until Bugler goes behind Joseph’s back to lease the field Joseph has leased for the past 15 years. Joseph must take a huge loss on dairy cows that he can’t feed, but that doesn’t seem to faze the wealthy Bugler.

As the situation deteriorates, Bugler keeps getting the best of Joseph, however inadvertently. Joseph’s attitude is egged on by the villagers, who don’t like Bugler. It doesn’t help that Joseph’s sister, Breege, has fallen in love with Bugler, unaware that he’s engaged to a woman back in Australia.

This beautiful, moody novel winds its way to an inevitable sad end. O’Brien’s writing is gorgeous and evocative. This is quite a book.

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Review 1497: Elmet

Best of Ten!
My very brief research on Elmet tells me that it was a Welsh kingdom in what is currently West Yorkshire, but the Wikipedia article says that Bede refers to it as “the forest of Elmet.” This reference is certainly apt for the novel Elmet.

Daniel, his father Daddy, and his sister Cathy live in the deep forest in a house their father built. Daddy has claimed the land, which the children’s mother owned when she died.

Before they lived there, the children stayed with their grandmother while Daddy was gone for long periods. But Cathy was being harassed by local boys until she finally beat them up. When Daddy took Daniel and Cathy to report the repeated bullying to the head teacher, he could see that she already believed that the attack was unprovoked, believed the middle-class boys’ lies over the poor children’s truth, that is. So, Daddy took them away to the forest and told them he wouldn’t leave them again.

At first, their life seems idyllic as they live mostly off the land, but we know from the beginning that Daniel is running away from some horrible event. So, a feeling of dread builds.

Daddy is an uneducated giant who makes a living fighting illicit bare-knuckles boxing matches. In his past, he also did violent work off the edges of legality, but lately he has used his great strength to help out poor people against injustices by landlords and former employers. Because of his past, however, he can’t seek out legal means to sort out his problems, and the worst one appears with Mr. Price, a man known to have cheated locals out of their land and a poor landlord. He claims that the kids’ mother sold him her land before she left the area.

This novel is stunning in its beauty, full of dread, dark, and wonderful. Set in the present, it depicts life so violent and exploitative for the locals in poverty that you would think it was feudal times. It’s not often I read a book this good. I read this book for my Man Booker Prize project.

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Review 1490: A Patchwork Planet

Anne Tyler’s books have been around for years, and some of them have been very popular, but for some reason, I never read any until just a couple of years ago. Now, I have read a few and wonder what I was waiting for. Her Baltimore settings and her quirky characters make for an enjoyable time reading.

In A Patchwork Planet, Barnaby Gaitlin is on his way by train from Baltimore to Philadelphia to see his daughter when he becomes fascinated by an incident. A man goes up and down the platform looking for someone who is going to Philadelphia, but he does not ask scruffy-looking Barnaby. He finally finds a middle-aged woman who agrees to take a package containing her passport to the man’s daughter in the Philadelphia station.

This event awakens in Barnaby both curiosity and a sort of protectiveness toward the woman. He watches her during the trip to see if she opens up the package to make sure it is a passport and not something more sinister or dangerous. She does not. He follows her to see her hand it over.

Barnaby is on the surface a tough, lower-class guy, but we find as we get to know him that he is still rebelling, at 30, against his wealthy, status-conscious parents. He is not ambitious, but he is kind-hearted and loves his job for Rent-a-Back, where he does chores and runs errands for mostly elderly clients. But he is a disappointment to his parents, especially to his mother, who can’t forgive him for incidents in his juvenile delinquent past. This past involved breaking into houses and stealing, but while his friends took liquor and money, Barnaby looked at family albums and stole curios. Unfortunately, he was the only one caught.

Barnaby takes another train trip with the woman, Sophia, and engages her in conversation, during which his friendliness wins her over. She contacts Rent-a-Back to have him help out her aunt. Soon, they begin dating.

Under Sophia’s influence, Barnaby begins to make strides toward growing up: to be more reliable at work, to make sure his daughter gets attention, to pay back his parents. But a crisis comes when Sophia’s aunt accuses him of stealing her nest egg.

A Patchwork Planet isn’t one of Tyler’s better known books, but I really enjoyed it, principally because of Barnaby’s engaging personality. This book is lots of fun.

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