Day 1134: Manhattan Beach

Cover for Manhattan BeachI have enjoyed everything that Jennifer Egan has written and thought that A Visit from the Goon Squad was one of the best books I read that year. So, when Netgalley offered Manhattan Beach, I was pleased. Egan’s other work has been, in one way or another, experimental, but Manhattan Beach is a straightforward historical novel, to my surprise.

Anna Kerrigan is a young girl at the start of the novel in 1930’s New York. Her father, Eddie, works as a bagman for the longshoreman’s union and takes her with him on his rounds. But shortly after the start of the novel, he begins leaving her home. He does this after he takes a new job working for a gangster, Mr. Styles. Although Anna interprets this as rejection, it is to keep her safe.

Eddie does not enjoy his home life. Although he loves his wife, they have a second daughter, Lydia, who is severely handicapped. Her presence makes him feel uncomfortable, and Agnes is always trying to force him to show affection to Lydia.

Then Eddie disappears without a trace. Anna begins working to help support the family. Eventually, the story splits into two. In one, Anna becomes involved with Mr. Styles, whom she remembers visiting as a child with Eddie, and works her way into the man’s world of marine diving as part of the war effort. In the other story, we find out what happened to Eddie.

For most of this novel, I wondered where it was going. Much of it centers around Anna, Eddie, and Mr. Styles. But first it seems to wander in focus from the New York underworld to the war effort and diving to Eddie’s experiences during World War II. Although the bulk of the novel is set during the war, there is very little feeling for the period.

link to NetgalleyOverall, I was a little disappointed in Manhattan Beach. It was well written, but Egan’s previous novels sparkled with originality. Egan makes it clear in the acknowledgements that she wanted to write about New York during the period, but the period feel is just not there. She is interested in the Naval Yard, where Anna works, but I didn’t really get an idea of what it was like.

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Day 838: The Forgotten Room

Cover for The Forgotten RoomThe Forgotten Room is a romance novel, which is not my genre, but it has enough of a focus on family secrets to keep my interest. The novel relates the stories of three romances, set at different times in the same mansion in New York. Written by three romance authors, I suspect that each one wrote one of the stories.

In 1892, Olive Van Allen is employed in the house as a servant, but she is there under false pretenses. The owner of the house, a nouveau-riche businessman named Pratt, hired her father as an architect for the house but then ruined him by refusing to pay him. Olive hopes to find paperwork to prove Pratt owed her father money, but she is distracted by falling madly in love with one of the sons of the house, the artistic Harry Pratt, and stealing meetings with him in his attic studio.

In 1920, Lucy Young takes a job as a secretary at the office of Cromwell, Polk, and Moore, a law office that handles the affairs of the Pratt family. She also takes a room in a boarding house that used to be the Pratt mansion. In addition to the desire for advancement, Lucy hopes to discover in the Pratt papers the connection between the Pratts and her mother and perhaps learn why her mother whispered “Harry” on her death bed. Lucy is also soon torn between two men, her boss, Philip Schuyler, and a handsome art dealer from Charleston, South Carolina, John Ravenel.

In 1944, Kate Schuyler is a doctor serving in a hospital that used to be the Pratt mansion. She gives one of her patients, Captain Cooper Ravenel, her own room in the top of the hospital because the hospital is overcrowded. But she is surprised when Captain Ravenel seems to recognize her and calls her Victorine.

The pleasures in this novel came from trying to figure out how these people are related and what happens to Kate’s mother and grandmother. The tension is supposed to come from whether Kate will be parted from Captain Ravenel, who is engaged to be married to someone else. There’s not much doubt about that, though, and it’s more interesting to find out what secrets kept the other lovers apart.

link to NetgalleyUnfortunately, Olive’s story is based on something a few words could have cleared up and the spitefulness of Prunella Pratt, Harry’s sister. Lucy’s is a little more understandable. What I found unlikely was Prunella’s conversion at the end of the novel to an old lady who regrets her actions and encourages Kate to follow her heart. Yeah.

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Day 836: My Name Is Lucy Barton

Cover for My Name Is Lucy BartonBest Book of the Week!
Lucy Barton grew up very poor in rural Illinois. She looks back to a time as a young married woman, living in New York City with her husband and two daughters and learning to write. At the time, she had not returned to her parents’ house since she went to college. Something horrible associated with her father is hinted at.

Much of Lucy’s story centers around a stay in the hospital, where for some weeks she has an undiagnosed illness. Her husband can’t bear hospitals, so he asks her mother to come. Her mother stays with her, never leaving her room and refusing to use the cot the nurses provide. During this visit, her mother tells her stories about people they both know.

For much of their lives, Lucy’s family has been outcasts. At school other children complained that they smelled funny. For many years, they lived in a garage with exposure to extreme cold and no access to running water. When she was a little girl and both her parents were at work, her older siblings at school, her parents would lock her into her father’s truck. One time a snake was in there with her. These are some of the horrors of Lucy’s childhood.

link to NetgalleyWe can see that Lucy loves other people for the slightest show of kindness. We can understand why.

My Name Is Lucy Barton is an affecting story about a woman learning to deal with her own past and loving people despite it. The novel is also about becoming a writer.

Strout’s prose is wonderful as usual, picking out the little details of life that make her prose so convincing. I delight in Strout’s depictions of ordinary life and people.

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Day 808: The Fatal Flame

Cover for The Fatal FlameI was sad to learn that The Fatal Flame would be the last book in Lyndsay Faye’s Timothy Wilde series. On the other hand, it is better to wrap up a series than let it go on until it becomes perfunctory. Still, I could have spent a lot more time with Timothy, his erratic brother Val, and his friends.

The novels are set in a gritty 1840’s New York City. This one deals with several issues that were controversial at the time: slavery—particularly whether Oregon would join the union as a free or slave state; the development of feminism; and the treatment of the mentally ill.

Timothy Wilde is one of New York’s newly formed Copper Stars, the police force, now two years on the job. At the beginning of the novel, he encounters a few of his colleagues at a wharf, where they are watching Ronan McGlynn. McGlynn is known to offer factory jobs to young, naive Irish women straight off the boats only to forcibly imprison them in brothels. When the men follow McGlynn and his latest victim to the Queen Mab, a brothel, they find there a Tammany Hall boss, Robert Symmes.

Timothy finds Symmes despicable, so he is not happy to be assigned to a case involving him later that day. Symmes is receiving threats from someone. He believes that person to be Sally Woods, a woman who used to work in his textile factory and led a strike against it for higher pay for the women. The threats Symmes is receiving are printed flyers promising to burn down the buildings that Symmes owns.

Although Timothy is disturbed by Sally Woods, he is still looking for evidence when one of Symmes’ buildings burns down, thankfully with no one in it. Why? Because the inhabitants were warned by another woman, Ellie Abell, who used to be Sally Woods’ best friend. A burning building is a great horror to Timothy, because two years earlier he was severely burned in the great New York fire of 1845.

Timothy soon becomes preoccupied by another matter. His great love Mercy Underhill has returned from London (much to my dismay). He is concerned to find that not everything she says makes sense.

The fire investigation gets more complicated, but that’s not confusing enough. Something Timothy tells his brother Val about Symmes causes Val to decide to run against Symmes in the upcoming election for alderman. Symmes is a dangerous man who enjoys inflicting pain. Timothy knows that there is danger for all Val’s intimates.

This novel is complex, exciting, and interesting. I am waiting to see what Faye will do next. But meanwhile, I’ll miss the Wildes, Bird, Jim, and other characters from this series.

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Day 802: This Godforsaken Place

Cover for This Godforsaken PlaceAbigail Peacock and her father are regretting the impetuous desire for adventure that led them to journey thousands of miles from England to a remote village in northwestern Ontario to run a school. In 1885 the living conditions are primitive, and Abigail’s father has fallen ill in the depths of winter. Abigail continues to run the school and finds her life tedious. Lars, the helpful store owner who brought them there to teach Swedish rail workers and miners English, is almost certainly going to propose marriage. Abigail is not enthused.

Abigail is not at first receptive to Lars’ suggestion that she get a rifle. But eventually she buys one on a whim, guiltily spending some of her family’s savings. She finds an area outside of town to practice, and it soon becomes the only thing she enjoys. One day, though, she arrives at her practice location to find a wounded, unconscious cowboy. It’s not totally clear, but suggested, that she shot him by mistake the day before.

Here’s where the story started to lose me a little bit. Abigail doesn’t want anyone to disturb the place she practices, so instead of going for help, she leaves the cowboy there and returns at times to nurse him. This decision eventually leads to an even more morally challenged decision and then to a cross-country journey to find a man connected with Buffalo Bill Cody’s western show.

I don’t expect characters to be perfect, but this is the same person whose desire to do the right thing puts herself and a friend in jeopardy later in the novel. And then there’s the way they get out of it.

This kind of thing probably won’t bother many readers, though, and the novel does make an inventive adventure story with a strong heroine. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it. Still, just one more caveat.

Part of the novel is devoted to a rebellion in Canada that I hadn’t heard of before, of the Métis people lead by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont. Early in the novel, information on this topic is introduced through synopses of news articles Abigail is reading to her father and through some discussion. These sections and later ones are handled a little awkwardly because of the amount of information and its method of introduction. The way it was handled made me wonder what it was doing in the story. The information fits into the story eventually, but I feel, firstly, that it could have been introduced more smoothly, and secondly, that the novel unhandily juxtaposes the rebellion, the James Gang, and Annie Oakley.

When I read in an interview of Gault on Consumed by Ink that Gault wanted to write something that combined her research into those three topics, it made perfect sense to me. I just think the subjects could have been combined in a way that seemed more likely.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Day 799: The Sunken Cathedral

Cover for The Sunken CathedralThe Sunken Cathedral is Kate Walbert’s homage to Claude Debussy’s piano prelude of the same name. In turn, Debussy’s piano prelude was inspired by folk tales of a sunken city off the coast of Brittany. Walbert’s novel, like Debussy’s prelude, is impressionistic in nature. It begins with images of New York City under water after storms caused by global warming.

The novel moves immediately to a few months earlier, when we meet several different characters living in New York. Marie and Simone are two elderly French women who decide to take a course in painting. Marie is the principal character of the novel. When she was a child, her family members were victims of the Holocaust and she was in hiding.

Elizabeth is the mother of a middle school boy. She becomes obsessed with the Who We Are stories the school assigns the families to write. In this section I think Walbert is gently skewering the upper-class parents who are so wrapped up in their children’s school activities. But Elizabeth is unable to do the assignment, seeming to lack a sense of self.

The structure of this novel is unusual, as it presents us with little shards of each characters’s story, frequently interrupted by footnotes. Sometimes the information in the footnote is more important to our understanding than the main text. It took me a while to get interested in this novel, and at times I was irritated by this technique. I would just be getting involved in what was going on when a footnote would appear, sometimes in the middle of a passage, distracting me from the action.

Still, the novel is beautifully written. At times I wondered where it was going even though it was obvious where it would end up. I’m not certain, though, that I understand the purpose of the novel, except maybe to depict the lives of several people before the flood.

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Day 789: The Fall of Princes

Cover for The Fall of PrincesI didn’t really think I would like the subject matter of The Fall of Princes, but I enjoyed Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife, so I thought I’d give it a try. I have to say, though, that for most of the novel I found the protagonist repugnant.

As a young man, the protagonist, who isn’t really named but is called Rooney once or twice, becomes a successful trader on Wall Street. Still young, he loses his job and everything else and spends his middle age living in the past.

That’s about it. We learn this in the first chapters of the novel and then it repeats. Each chapter is either a record of excess wherein he and his friends throw millions away on clothes, food, booze, drugs, and sex, or it’s a pathetic present-day story about something like ordering nice clothes and sending them back. Even after his failures, he doesn’t seem to learn a new value system.

The novel is set mostly in the 80’s and is supposed to be a paeon to New York’s glamor, glitz, and grit. But I was appalled by the lack of morals of these people, all engaged in gorging themselves on everything. They are young and perhaps can be excused for getting carried away. However, though the main character learns a few lessons by the end, they are long in coming.

link to NetgalleyThe onset of AIDS at its worst adds the darkest overtones to the novel. The protagonist, who has lived through years of having sex with everything that moves, of course has to worry about AIDS. But this portion of the book is stated so savagely, it’s hard to know what to think about it. It’s as if the author thinks you have to have lived in New York in the 80’s to mourn someone who died from AIDS.

I did find that the last few chapters redeemed the novel somewhat, those and the fact that it is so strongly written. However, in its story of one excess after another, it seemed virtually plotless. These main characters were just too crass and brutal for me. That’s probably the point, though.

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