Review 1736: #1976 Club! 1876

When I was selecting a book to read for the 1976 Club, I realized I had read only one book by Gore Vidal and that so long ago I could barely remember it. So, I picked 1876.

Vidal’s sometime-narrator Charles Schuyler is returning to America after almost a lifetime in Europe, where he was documenting European events for the American press. He is accompanied by his daughter Emma, the widowed Princess d’Agrigente. Their circumstances are dire. Schuyler’s fortune was wiped out in the Panic of ’73, and when d’Agrigento died unexpectedly, Schuyler was shocked to find that the Prince’s debts exceeded his fortune. So, Schuyler has come back to America with two goals—to help get Governor Tilden elected as President in the next election so that he will be granted a post and to find a wealthy husband for his daughter.

They first return to New York. It is the Gilded Age, and they are at once drawn into the opulent but vulgar world of robber barons, the Astors and others, who now that they are loaded are trying to become the heads of society. Vidal uses this section to draw sketches and repeat gossip about many of these figures. The first section of the novel reminded me very much of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I recognized some characters, although here they go by their real names.

I was about 100 pages into this social whirl, observed with a great deal of snark, when I began to wonder where the plot of the novel was. It eventually emerged, with almost creaking slowness, as the events of the election of 1876, told with a great deal of bias.

Now, I’m not an expert on this period, but I recently read Ron Chernow’s biography of President Grant. In it, he made the point that Grant’s ruined reputation was partially a result of the number of Southern historians who predominated from the post-Civil War years up well past World War II. Well, Vidal has certainly read them, for he does his best to continue trashing Grant. Governor Tilden is running as a Democrat, but not once do his characters mention, for example, the dire results for the South if a Democrat was elected that year. At this time, Federal troops were still posted in the South because people—particularly black men—were still being murdered years after the war. Vidal glancingly mentions but shrugs off suggestions that people were being “discouraged” from voting Republican and says that Grant dispatched troops to some Southern cities to meddle with the vote. Grant sent troops to avoid more deaths and to allow people to vote the way they wanted to. In any case, the result of the election for the South was the same, because the Republican candidate, Rutherford Hayes, promised the removal of troops from the South to get more votes, thus ending Reconstruction and setting the South back years in its recovery and in civil rights.

The 1876 election was stolen from Tilden, and the story of it might have been interesting if more impartially handled. Instead, Vidal makes Tilden the only honest politician in a country riddled with corruption (it was, but I doubt Tilden was the only honest man) and plays down the skullduggery engaged in by the Democrats.

Further, there are too many characters in this novel to keep track of and they are too lightly characterized. Vidal seems more interested in relating scandalous tidbits and making up epigrams.

Then there’s the description on the novel cover, which should have tipped me off about how I was going to feel about it. I know that authors don’t write the blurbs, but it’s he that calls his historical novels “Narratives of Empire.” Now there’s a guy who takes himself seriously. The cover says, “With their broad canvas and large cast of fictional and historical characters, the novels in this series present a panorama of the American political and imperial experience as interpreted by one of its most worldy, knowing, and ironic observers.” Oh, man.

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Review 1691: The Norths Meet Murder

Mysterious Press has recently started bringing back the Mr. and Mrs. North series, which was extremely popular in the 1940’s and 50’s. Other bloggers’ reviews finally convinced me to try the first in this entertaining series.

Pam North has decided to have a party, and she thinks the empty apartment upstairs in their building would be a perfect place to have it. So, one afternoon Jerry and Pam North go up to look at it. There they find a man’s naked dead body in the bathtub.

Lieutenant Wiegand has some difficulty identifying the body, but it turns out to be that of Stanley Brent, a lawyer. Brent was a man disliked by many, part of a social set that intersects with that of the Norths. Pam North soon finds a clue, a paper with the name “Edwards” inserted into the mailbox to make it look as if the upstairs apartment is occupied. Wiegand is also able to find Clinton Edwards, a businessman and part of the same social set as Brent. Edwards claims to know Brent but to have few dealings with him.

But there are other suspects—Brent’s wife Claire; the Fullers, as Brent has been behaving as if he’s having an affair with Jane Fuller when he is not; maybe Mr. Berex or even Kumi, Edwards’ houseboy.

Mrs. North is an interesting character whose mind seems to always be ahead of her tongue. Mr. North is adept at interpreting what she means. There’s an awful lot of drinking going on in this novel, but it is humorous and engaging. It had fun reading it.

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Review 1632: Memories of the Future

When reading Hustvedt, I am always aware of an intelligence far greater than mine as well as a quality of being frighteningly well read. I especially noticed these attributes in Memories of the Future, an apparently autobiographical novel.

In the novel, the narrator, S. H., has found her old diaries from when she was a young adult and moved to New York City to spend a year writing a novel. She breaks up the story to reflect on her thoughts and actions of the time, provide a few updates on her present life working on this novel and visiting her elderly mother, present portions of the novel she was writing back then, and even take on a sort of third persona, the Introspective Detective.

S. H., who acquires the nickname Minnesota, is thrilled to move into her tiny, dark studio apartment, because she is starting a new life. Next door, her neighbor, Lucy Brite, has intriguing dialogues with herself that S. H. begins eavesdropping on, trying to figure out what she’s talking about, as it seems to involve violence.

Minnesota is given her nickname by her new friend, Whitney, who attends the same types of poetry readings and lectures, and soon Minnesota is part of a lively group of young people. She is already running out of money, however, and has some dark times ahead of her.

Hustvedt muses on some interesting topics, such as the nature of memory and the effects of aging, but most of her anger centers around women’s learning of acceptance. In an incident that turns out badly, she asks her younger self why she was more concerned with politeness and going along than with her instinct to resist what was happening. As in the wonderful The Blazing World, she tells the real story of a woman whose work is claimed by a man, Baroness Elsa Von Freytag-Loringhoven, an artist and poet whose sculpture was claimed and attributed to Marcel Duchamp after her death.

I found this novel more difficult and not as engaging as the other two I have read, but still, she is always inspiring and fascinating. I just wish I understood more of her allusions and philosophical meanderings.

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Review 1593: The Long Take

When I opened up The Long Take, which I was reading for both my Walter Scott prize and Booker prize projects, I was not delighted to discover it is mostly a poem. However, it is fairly easy to read, so my next challenge was a search for the plot.

Walker, a World War II veteran from Nova Scotia, first arrives in New York City in 1946. He haunts skid row and dive bars as he tries to find a place for himself. Later, after an invitation, he travels to Los Angeles and gets a job with a newspaper.

This novel is more atmospheric and thematic than plot-driven. It is about droves of homeless ex-soldiers occupying the downtown areas of all the large cities Walker visits. It is about Walker’s feelings about what he saw and did in the war. And it is about the gutting of downtown Los Angeles to make room for parking lots and freeways and the racism underlying the planning decisions.

The Long Take is beautifully written. It is not a noir work, as described on the cover, but it is gritty and depressing.

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Review 1586: Literary Wives! The Age of Innocence

Cover for The Age of Innocence

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

* * *

I reviewed this novel, one of my favorites, back in 2015, and I find I still agree with my original review. So, I will not re-review it, but instead am providing the link to the original review. Then I will go on to consider our usual question for this club.

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

“Ah, no, he did not want May to have that kind of innocence, the innocence that seals the mind against imagination and the heart against experience!” So thinks Newland Archer in contemplating May Welland, his fiancée. But of course, that’s the kind of innocence May has, as he is too slow to discover, just as he is too slow to discover he is actually in love with May’s cousin, the Countess Olenska. Newland has fastened on May’s shining purity, so that even as he hopes never to live a life of sameness, to teach May to appreciate the arts and travel, he hasn’t seemed to notice the sameness that the Wellands pursue as they cater to their hypochondriacal patriarch, spending the late winters in St. Augustine and the summers in Newport, carefully following the dictates of society.

In this novel, we don’t so much see what it’s like to be Newland’s wife as to be May’s husband. On their honeymoon, after May has dismissed the tutor Newland wishes to invite for dinner as “common,” with her limited, provincial thinking, Newland “perceived with a flash of chilling insight that in future many problems would be thus negatively solved for him, but . . . he took refuge in the comforting platitude that the first six months were always the most difficult in marriage. ‘After that I suppose we shall have pretty nearly finished rubbing off each other’s angles,’ he reflected; but the worst of it was that May’s pressure was already bearing on the very angles whose sharpness he most wanted to keep.”

Two years into the marriage, he makes plans to take flight with Ellen Olenska, thinking he can talk her into it when she is resolved not to betray her family. Wharton has just explained that Newland has given up reading poetry in the evenings because May “had begun to hazard her own [opinions], with results destructive to his enjoyment of the works commented upon.” In that scene, where he finds himself literally stifling, “As she sat thus, the lamplight full on her clear brow, he said to himself with a secret dismay that he would always know the thoughts behind it, that never, in all the years to come, would she surprise him by an unexpected mood, by a new idea, a weakness, a cruelty or an emotion.”

The other important marriage in this novel is only hinted at, but it underlies all of the action. That is Ellen’s marriage to Count Olenski. We are told the man is a brute, that he is a womanizer. When the Count’s secretary comes to make Ellen an offer to return to her husband, he tells Newland he has seen a change in her—that she must not go back.

Literary Wives logo

Ellen herself is reticent about her marriage, and I am actually not sure what Olenski’s brutishness is supposed to consist of, but I think we are to understand that she has found, despite its faults, New York society possesses a fineness and honesty that is not present in her former milieu. She wants to become a better person, so she will not go back and she does not wish to betray May and the rest of the family despite her love for Newland. And May, despite her false assumption that the two are having an affair, finds the best way to thwart Newland’s plans.

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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 1513: Literary Wives! The Dutch House

Best of Ten!
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 1455: City of Girls

So far, it’s hard to predict what Elizabeth Gilbert will write from one novel to the next. I read Eat, Pray, Love reluctantly, because it was so popular and I resisted reading a memoir by someone so young. But I loved it for its style and humor. The Signature of All Things was an enthralling 19th century story about the life of an unusual woman.

In City of Girls, Gilbert re-creates 20th century Manhattan, beginning in 1940. Vivian Morris is a heedless Vassar dropout with no idea what she wants to do and no inclination to do anything. Her status-conscious parents finally ship her off to her Aunt Peg in New York. Peg is the owner of a crumbling old theater in Hell’s Kitchen that puts on brainless entertainment for working class clientele.

Vivian begins a life of drunken nights running around town with the theater’s chorus girls and sleeping with just about anyone and days making costumes for the shows. For Vivian’s talent is sewing.

In the four-story building where the theater is located live Aunt Peg and her partner Olive as well as a motley crew of chorus girls, musicians, and others from the shows. Vivian is delighted to be given the apartment of Aunt Peg’s husband, the debonair Billy Buell, who hasn’t lived there in years. But things change after Peg offers a home to the famous British actress, Edna Parker Watson, whose home was destroyed in the Blitz. Peg decides to stage a good production for Edna, and Billy arrives to help write it.

The show is a success, but shortly thereafter, Vivian takes a fall because of her own foolishness. She ends up returning to her parents’ home in disgrace.

So far, the book was of a piece, even if I didn’t find Vivian a particularly interesting or sympathetic character. But that’s just the first half of the book. During the second half, when a wiser Vivian returns to New York to help out her aunt during the war and proceeding for the next 30 years, I began to wonder what the heck the book was about. It just seems to meander around a lot before coming to an admittedly poignant point.

The conceit employed by the novel is that the entire long novel is a letter to a woman answering her long-ago question of how Vivian knew her father. I think this first-person narrative is a weakness, because I can’t imagine someone writing some of this stuff to anyone, let alone a near stranger. Further, the second half of the novel seems like a different, less purposeful book.

It sounds like I disliked this book. I didn’t, I just feel it has problems, and I never warmed to Vivian.

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Review 1322: Golden Hill

Cover for Golden HillBest of Ten!
It is 1746 when a mysterious young man arrives in New York and immediately goes to Lovell & Company on Golden Hill. He presents a bill for a thousand pounds, an enormous amount of money, from a trading partner of Lovell. Although the bill looks legitimate, Lovell insists on sending back to London for confirmation of the bill’s legitimacy before paying out.

Perhaps Lovell would have felt more comfortable if Richard Smith was more forthcoming, but Smith has nothing to say about who he is or what he plans to do with the money. He is, in fact, dissembling in some way, but we don’t learn how for some time.

These are uneasy days in the colonies. The governor is not popular, and he is constantly undercut by Mr. De Lancey, who has better connections. Most of the New Yorkers are very touchy about anything that seems to threaten their liberty. Smith himself is the type of person who rubs others in the wrong way. He is also hapless. Within no time, he has been robbed of almost all his money and has to subsist on a few guineas until the bill clears. At the same time, he must present a facade of wealth to all the curious New Yorkers.

On Guy Fawkes Day, he accidentally offends a gang of laborers and is rescued by the governor’s secretary, Septimus Oakeshott. They begin an uncomfortable friendship.

Finally, Smith has the misfortune to fall in love with Tabitha Lovell, a quick-witted, quick-tempered girl who seems to hate him.

The novel is written in a humorous, sprightly style, and we don’t find out who the narrator is until the last chapter. We end up with a picaresque adventure story that has a hidden purpose, and hints of more important issues.

Golden Hill is an excellent historical novel that I read for my Walter Scott prize project. It depicts the beginnings of English New York with its solid Dutch background, hints of the coming revolution, and looks at the issue of slavery. It is entirely unpredictable and highly enjoyable.

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Review 1301: The Paragon Hotel

Cover for The Paragon HotelAlice “Nobody” James is on the run from the Mafia with two bullets in her at the beginning of The Paragon Hotel. She is obviously in distress when her train arrives in Portland, Oregon, so Max, the African-American railway porter, takes her to the Paragon Hotel. The hotel is the only one in Portland for respectable Negroes in the 1920’s, when this novel is set. In fact, it is illegal for them to even live or work in Portland.

Alice is grateful for the help, and soon after recovering gets to know some of the residents and employees of the hotel. In particular, she is drawn to Blossom Fontaine, a chanteuse who reminds her of a friend she had in New York. When Alice finds that the occupants of the hotel are worried about the Ku Klux Klan, newly arrived in Portland, she decides to help them with her skills in investigation—for she was a spy for Mr. Salvatici, a man known as the Spider, back in Little Italy.

As Alice and her new friends prepare to battle bigotry, a little boy disappears. The novel follows the search for the boy while flashing back to explain how Alice ended up being wounded by her own friend, Nicolo Benemati.

link to NetgalleyI have been a fan of Lyndsay Faye for a long time, but I did not find this novel as compelling as her others. I wasn’t interested at all in the Mafia story. I was more interested in the Portland story, but somehow the characters didn’t ring true to me, particularly Alice herself. Faye seems to have written this novel to explore Portland’s long racist history, which I found interesting, but it gets off track onto other issues.

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