Review 1566: Coromandel Sea Change

Rumer Godden was around for so long as an author that when I couldn’t find the book by her that I had on my Classics Club list, I thought nothing of substituting Coromandel Sea Change. Even when I noticed a publication date of 1991, I assumed it was a reprint. It wasn’t, however, which brings up something I’ve been thinking about, and that’s how do we decide something is a classic if it’s not tested by time? I associate Godden with the 30’s through 50’s, when she was very active, and which I considered long enough ago to put her on my list. Oh well. We had this discussion on the Classics Club blog, in fact, this book was the one that gave me the idea. In any case, it is a wonderful, atmospheric book.

Newlyweds Blaise and Mary Browne arrive at Patna Hall on the Coromandel Sea evincing different reactions. Mary is enchanted by this view of the “real India,” while Blaise is enraged that their rooms are not in the main hotel and offended by the bathroom arrangements. As a couple, they seem particularly ill-suited—the young Mary is eager to observe ordinary people and take part in their customs while the older Blaise, a diplomat, is interested only in schmoozing with important people. Very soon, they are bickering like children while the other guests and hotel staff look on in dismay and Kuku, the young assistant manager, hopes to get her chance with Blaise.

The hotel is busy with an upcoming parliamentary election, and Mary meets Krishnan, one of the candidates, out on the beach one night. He is young and charismatic and seems genuinely concerned to help his people. Mary is happy to oblige when the campaign asks for her help, but Blaise is offended and misinterprets her interest.

In this novel, the stories of Mary and Blaise are not the only interest. The hotel staff are important, and the country itself is vividly evoked and almost a character. The election is charming in its own way. Even a donkey named Slippers, an elephant named Birdie, and a squirrel have their places. Mary is likable, although very naive, while Blaise is pretty unbearable.

Despite the sad ending to this novel, I found it colorful and charming. It made me want to visit the Coromandel Sea. Research has told me that the area was virtually destroyed by the tsunami in 2004, but apparently Chennai, mentioned in the book, is considered a top location to visit by Lonely Planet, so perhaps the area has recovered. In any case, perhaps it isn’t the paradise described by Godden anymore.

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Review 1557: Idaho

If you prefer the kind of novel that answers all your questions and ties everything up in a neat little bow, then Idaho is probably not for you. It is a haunting, atmospheric novel that ponders the depths of the human heart—love, guilt, friendship, regret.

The novel begins with Ann, married to Wade, a man with a tragic past. A year before his marriage to Ann, while he and his first wife Jenny were out cutting firewood, Jenny killed their youngest daughter, May, with an ax. Thinking only to keep his wife away from their older daughter, June, Wade drove the truck containing his wife and dead daughter down the mountain looking for help, leaving nine-year-old June there. Misunderstandings with the police prevented him from immediately returning, and June was lost.

Now Ann lives with Wade on their remote mountain farm, but she doesn’t really understand what happened. Wade prefers not to discuss it, and anyway, his memory is beginning to fail from hereditary early-only Alzheimers.

This novel explores this event and its ramifications through about 50 years of time and the viewpoints of a number of characters, some only peripheral to the story. It is beautifully written, provocative, and tragic. It is absolutely a wonderful novel.

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Review 1553: Whippoorwills

Full disclosure: Peggy Schimmelman is my cousin’s wife, although I have never met her.

Whippoorwills is primarily an epistolary novel set in the Missouri Ozarks and Northern California. The premise of the novel is that Leigh, in California, wants to write a novel about Rosie’s friend, Chrystal, who disappeared when the girls were in high school. The two women are also linked by Melody, Rosie’s friend and Leigh’s sister, who is now dead.

The story is told in a rambling, folksy way by Rosie in Missouri, as she tries to convey information for the novel to Leigh. Intermittently, we also get a slice of Leigh’s life in California as she struggles with a job she hates and tries to find time to write.

This novel is well written and full of local color, both in its eccentric but likable characters and its vivid colloquial style. For all its expressed premise, it is really about the life of Rosie, whose fundamentalist background and natural naiveté combined with several horrific experiences send her into periodic mental illness.

For patient readers, there is a certain amount of payoff, but you have to embrace its many circumlocutions in Rosie’s eccentric way of expressing herself and just go along for the ride. At first, I wondered if the story of what happened to Chrystal was ever going to get anywhere, but then I realized the story was really about Rosie.

I did feel, though, that the novel was a bit too long and wandering and that the sections about Leigh didn’t add much to it. I enjoyed much of it, though, and found some of it touching.

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Review 1550: Literary Wives! Alternate Side

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.

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

* * *

At first, I didn’t think I would be interested in the characters of Alternate Side, privileged and wealthy New Yorkers who live on a dead-end block on the West Side. Nora Nolan explains they are only wealthy because of the value of their homes, but their concerns are of private schools, servants, high-powered jobs, and other areas of privilege. However, I liked Nora and some of the other characters.

Nora loves New York and their little neighborhood. She is aware, though, that her husband, Charlie, is not as happy. His job in investments has not worked out as he hoped, and he is upset when he hears that his boss, Bob Harris, has approached Nora to run a new foundation he’s setting up. To avoid making Charlie upset, Nora takes a job for a woman who is opening a jewelry museum.

Charlie is also interested in the money they could make if they sold the house, and he often suggests other cities where they could live, but Nora, loving New York as she does, pays little attention.

Then things in the neighborhood are changed by an ugly incident. Charlie has scored a space in a small lot in the neighborhood. Before that, he engaged in the “alternate side” game of moving his car to another side of the street just in time to avoid a fine. But the lot proves to be a source of contention in which he is soon involved. People try to park there without permission, and occasionally the exit is blocked.

The hothead of the neighborhood is Jack, one of the two men on the block whom Nora doesn’t like. One day, Ricky, the neighborhood handyman, parks his van a little too close to the exit of the parking lot, although there is enough room to get out. Jack doesn’t think so, though, and becomes so angry that he takes out a golf club from his car and begins hitting the van. When Ricky runs up asking Jack to stop, he hits Ricky and breaks his leg.

The block begins to take sides. Nora, who thinks Jack is a horrible man, believes he is guilty of assault, while Charlie, who was there, says it was an accident. Then when Nora visits Ricky in the hospital, Jack’s wife Sherry—whom Nora likes—becomes angry with her. At the same time, Nora notices changes in the cleanliness of the area, and someone begins leaving little bags of dog poop on her front porch. She has a dog but always picks up his poop.

Quindlen makes the disintegration of the neighborhood a metaphor for the disintegration of Nora and Charlie’s marriage. She does this without too much drama, in a way that is interesting and well written. Still, I have to say as a minor caveat about the novel as a whole that I don’t have that much sympathy for someone whose biggest worry is whether her housekeeper will quit now that the kids have gone to college.

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

This is a nuanced depiction of two people whose needs are no longer the same. Nora seems cynical about Charlie rather than loving and disdains his business ambitions. As I’ve mentioned, she loves New York, while Charlie has grown to hate it. Nora acknowledges that Charlie would be more successful in any other city, but she isn’t interested in moving. In effect, she isn’t willing to compromise her own life for Charlie’s happiness any more than she has already done by turning down the job for Charlie’s boss.

Charlie also disdains Nora’s career, and later we learn that he has always felt like Nora’s second choice in mates, because she was deeply in love with her college boyfriend, James, who turned out to be gay. In fact, it is his fresh and honest personality that she turned to then and that stands in his way at work (although, another caveat, I wasn’t persuaded by Quindlen’s depiction of this personality and in fact had only a vague notion of Charlie’s personality). Charlie himself is turning too often to drink.

I loved this novel for showing an undramatic parting of the ways, a story about people growing apart. There is no deceit, no affairs, no big fights, just a realization that parting needs to occur and the beginning of new lives.

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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