Book Review: Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler – a delightful read inspired by Shakespeare

A few years ago the publishing house Hogarth, commissioned some well-known authors to write retellings of some of Shakespeare’s plays in novel form. Jo Nesbo did Macbeth, Gillian Flynn Hamlet and Margaret Atwood The Tempest – among others. Vinegar Girl is Anne Tyler’s retelling of The Taming of a Shrew. This play sounds somewhat old-fashioned today with its story of a ‘difficult’ young woman softening into an obedient wife. Even the word ‘shrew’ is a hard term to swallow – is there even a male equivalent?

Tyler manages this by allowing Kate Battista, the heroine of her story, to remain a forthright and no-nonsense kind of person until the end. She meets her match in Pyotr, her father’s research assistant, but being Polish, he’s used to women like Kate, in fact he much prefers them. With his limited English, it’s easy to understand what Kate says because she doesn’t bother with the niceties. In Pyotr, Tyler has created the one man who will accept Kate as she is. So not tamed – not at all. The story then hinges around Kate coming on board with her father’s idea of an arranged marriage.

Tact, restraint, diplomacy. What was the difference between tact and diplomacy? Maybe “tact” referred to saying things politely while “diplomacy” meant not saying things at all. Except, wouldn’t “restraint” cover that? Wouldn’t “restraint” cover all three?”

At twenty-nine, Kate is still living at home, working in a kindergarten, where she’s often in trouble for being too blunt with parents, but the children adore her. Her mother long dead, it was mostly left to Kate to help bring up her much younger sister, Bunny, who at fifteen is everything Kate isn’t. Bunny is flirty, charming, and ditsy, but that doesn’t stop her from being a little cunning. Kate dropped out of college when she fell out with her professor. But she’s obviously smart. Maybe even as smart as her academic father, Dr Battista, who is hoping soon to make a breakthrough in his research.

The problem for Dr Battista is that Pyotr needs a green card to stay in the States, his three year working visa about to expire. Pyotr is a brilliant scientist and without him, their work on autoimmune disorders would flounder. But if Pyotr were to marry an American, the green card would be no problem. So the morning when her father asks to bring her his forgotten lunch, left at home in the kitchen, is a surprise for Kate. Even though Dr Battista often forgets his lunch, he usually doesn’t worry, because he hardly ever knows it’s lunchtime. He just carries on working. Of course, it’s just an opportunity for Pyotr to meet Kate. Kate is soon suspicious and then appalled.

“Well, in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Yes, they would,” Pyotr said mysteriously. He had been walking a couple of steps ahead of Kate, but now he dropped back and, without any warning, slung an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close to his side. “But why you would want to catch flies, hah? Answer me that, vinegar girl.” 

The story is told from Kate’s point of view, and while she’s prickly and a bit odd at times, she soon gets under your skin. Tyler is always brilliant with odd-ball characters, quirky families and people who are not society’s shining stars. And I love her for this. An assortment of support characters – an attractive fellow teacher, the drop-out next door that is supposedly tutoring Bunny in Spanish, uncles and an aunt – add colour as well as complicate the plot, which builds nicely to a dramatic and hilarious climax. I’m sure Shakespeare would have approved.

Vinegar Girl is a quick, light read but so delightful and fun it really brightened my day – it only takes a day to read it. The novel may not have the complexity or the heft of some of Tyler’s more acclaimed novels, but it’s still a lovely little story and well worth picking up. I am so glad I did – it’s a four star read from me.

Book Review: Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus – an entertaining look at women’s issues in the ‘sixties with an unforgettable protagonist

We’re starting off the new year with an entertaining read that will make you laugh, as well as think, and teach you a bit of chemistry as you go.

There’s something unusual about Elizabeth Zott. She’s a chemist, she’s fiercely intelligent as well beautiful and fearlessly determined. You would think that these would be helpful attributes, that for someone like Elizabeth Zott, the world would be her oyster.

But Bonnie Garmus has set her debut novel in the late 1950s/early 1960s California. This is a period where women found it difficult to break out of the stereotypes that had held them back for centuries – in particular that a woman’s place is in the home; also that academia – particularly lectureships and professorships as well as leading any kind of research – were for men. Elizabeth has escaped her dreadful parents, rescued by reading and study, only to encounter the worst kinds of misogyny at university.

When we first meet Elizabeth, we’re a few years down the track and she’s a TV cook on the afternoon programmes designed for housewives. She’s supposed to follow the script but instead she introduces her audience to chemistry. Because cooking is chemistry after all. Supper at Six is hugely popular, probably because along with the chemistry, viewers also get a good deal of common sense and empowerment.

Sometimes I think that if a man were to spend a day being a woman in America, he wouldn’t make it past noon.

We are also introduced to Elizabeth’s daughter, Madeline, a precocious child who is just as smart and outspoken as her mother. The only other member of the household is Six-thirty, the dog, who not to be left in the shade by his super-smart owners, can understand a huge vocabulary.

The story weaves back to the past to events that bring Elizabeth to the Hastings Research Institute in Commons, California, where she meets her future partner and encounters more of the sexism that prevented her working on a PhD. Calvin Evans’s IQ is off the chart and he’s already been nominated for a Nobel Prize. True chemistry happens between them and Calvin teaches Elizabeth to row. Rowing is the reason Calvin chose a crumby posting at Hastings, that and a grudge.

What I find interesting about rowing is that it’s always done backwards. It’s almost as if the sport itself is trying to teach us not to get ahead of ourselves.

This is a wry comedy of a book, full of quirky characters and the laughs you get from the tense situations Elizabeth creates around herself when just trying to be her own person. Desperation drives her to be a cooking show host, but like the rowing, Elizabeth gets on with it and makes it work. Amid the laughs are the shadows of loss and grief, and a world that is overdue for a darn-good shake up.

Reading Lessons in Chemistry, I couldn’t help humming to myself ‘I am woman, hear me roar’ as Elizabeth adapts when she hits a roadblock and takes no prisoners. Madeline is also entertaining as one of those outspoken kids who ask too many awkward questions. The character of Harriet Sloane, the helpful neighbour happy to babysit and escape her unpleasant husband adds a layer of maternal common sense desperately needed in the household. Six-thirty steals every scene he’s in.

I couldn’t help thinking this novel would work well on the screen and yup, you’ll be able to see it soon if you subscribe to Apple TV+. But as I always say: read the book first. Lessons in Chemistry gets four out of five from me.

Book Review: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens – a mystery that brings a marshy wilderness to life

I may be the last person I know to read this novel, but with the movie causing a lot of chat – both positive and negative, I thought it was about time.

Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those novels that sweeps you away. You can’t help but get lost in the world of Kya, abandoned by her family, by anyone she takes a shine to, but just gets on with the hand she’s dealt. The story starts in the early 1950s when Kya’s six, living with her family in a shack among marshes on the North Carolina coast. Her father’s a violent drunk with PTSD from his war service and has fallen out with his own once-grand family as well as his in-laws.

Kya’s mother is the first to leave and you struggle to understand how she could walk out on her family, particularly young Kya. But she’s a victim of so much abuse, it’s all she can do to get herself to safety. Soon Kya’s brothers and sisters leave too – they’re just old enough to make a life for themselves, but it’s a shame no one thought about their little sister. Meanwhile Kya, who teaches herself how to cook and keep herself alive, avoids the worst of her father’s mood swings, until he too leaves.

Kya has avoided school. Her single day in the classroom a rude awakening to prejudice and bullying. Still just a kid, she has learnt to navigate the marshes in her dad’s old boat. She discovers that the elderly black man who sells fuel, also sells fresh mussels so Kya finds a way to support herself. Thank goodness for old Jumpin’ and his kindly wife who look out for Kya, offering used clothing and affection.

And thank goodness for Tate, the boy a few years older, who teaches Kya to read and write. This opens doors for Kya and she is obviously very smart, soon recording the wildlife in her marsh not just with her collections of feathers and shells, the self-taught watercolours, but now with written descriptions too. But Tate is off to university and his life is set to take him in a different direction.

The story jumps forwards to 1969 with a murder investigation when the body of popular motor mechanic Chase Andrews is found at the bottom of a defunct fire tower. Did he fall or was he pushed? Sherriff Ed Jackson finds no fingerprints and enough to suggest foul play and soon his attention turns to the Marsh Girl. The old prejudices against Kya have never left and she becomes an easy scapegoat.

The murder investigation propels the story along, while weaving in Kya’s backstory, her growing up and her relationships with two young men. This is interesting enough, but what really makes the book special is the way Delia Owens brings the marsh to life – the watery passageways, the plants that grow there and the wildlife. This is described vividly in Kya’s distinctive voice which helps you see the world through her eyes.

“Crawdads” is an engrossing read and the character of young Kya as she learns to make a life for herself both heartbreaking and fascinating. The court case against Kya is gripping too, although I did find the plot lagged a little in the middle. And I couldn’t help thinking of Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, which kind of skewed my reading of this novel. Perhaps this earlier work was an inspiration for Owen’s book or it may have just been me. I guess it’s true that every reader reads a different book. “Crawdads” gets three and a half out of five stars from me.

Book Review: It All Comes Down to This by Therese Anne Fowler – a compelling sisterly drama

Stories about sisters seem to pop up in all kinds of literature. They’re in those fairy stories I loved as a kid (Cinderella, The Twelve Dancing Princesses, Snow White and Rose Red), several Jane Austen novels, to say nothing of King Lear which we read in high school. What is it that we like about sister stories so much? Is it because you get to see a family from several different angles? Whatever the reason, I absolutely devoured It All Comes Down to This.

The book starts out in New York – another plus for me – where Marti Geller is getting her affairs in order. She has only a couple of weeks to live and is remarkably calm about it; the hospice people are wonderful. She has written in her will that the family cottage in Maine is to be sold and the proceeds divided among her three daughters. This creates a mixture of responses from the sisters, particularly as she has chosen her son-in-law as her executor.

Beck is appalled at the idea of the sale. The cottage has been their vacation home for decades, even if no one’s been there in a while. Her sisters could use the money, but Beck is looking for a bolt-hole. With her children grown-up she wants to finally write that novel. She’s an accomplished journalist, but the novel has been in the back of her mind for years. It doesn’t help that her husband Paul is an editor for a publishing company that has nurtured award winning novelists. Having him peering over her shoulder just stifles any creative juices. Secretly, Beck wonders if Paul might be gay.

Middle sister Claire is recently divorced, having admitted to her husband after too many drinks at a party, that he wasn’t the love of her life. She still carries a torch for someone else. As a girl, Claire struggled to compete with assertive Beck or pretty younger sister Sophie, the family darling, so she worked hard at school. Now Clare’s a paediatric heart surgeon, still with a huge student loan to pay off. The divorce has been another financial burden and she’s got a young son to think of. Selling the cottage in Maine would be a godsend.

While her older sisters married early and settled into family life, Sophie is single at thirty-six and trying to live the dream, or at least what her Instagram followers think is the dream. She works for an art gallery in New York, using her bubbly personality to seal deals with up and coming artists and their buyers. This involves travel and looking the part and being at all the right parties. She has maxed out all her credit cards and lives out of two suitcases, house-sitting to put a roof over her head, while everyone thinks she has a flat of her own which she sublets. Sophie could definitely use a hefty cash injection.

The narrative cycles between these three women as well as Paul, who has a burning secret of his own and C J Reynolds the cottage’s prospective buyer. C J is interesting in that he’s just served a term in prison for shooting at his father. Another character with family baggage. He settles into a friend’s lavish home on Maine with the idea of buying in the area and is surprised to have to share the house with two other unusual house guests: an elderly patrician woman and her newly orphaned grandson. This creates some wonderful scenes as the three learn to get along with each other.

The story burbles along between all of the above characters and while they are likeable enough, the author doesn’t shirk from showing us their faults and foibles. The story is paced nicely as Beck does her darnedest to hang on to the cottage and the lengths she will go to. Claire’s story is more of an emotional one while Sophie gets in a tighter and tighter spot as her financial house of cards looks set to crumble.

So, as I said, I simply plowed through the book, thoroughly entertained and curious about how it would work out for all five characters. But to tell the truth the ending fell a little flat for me. Was it a bit too fanciful, a bit rushed? Or was it that when it came down to it, I found the sisters just a bit foolish, annoyingly so even, and not quite likeable enough. So this one’s a three and a half out of five from me. I’ll still hunt out more books by this author though.

Book Review: The Headmaster’s Wife by Thomas Christopher Greene – a riveting story, artfully crafted

I’d heard a few recommendations of this 2014 novel set in a New England school. You get to the middle and suddenly you can’t put it down, people told me. And yes, in a way, that was true.

The Headmaster’s Wife is the story of a marriage in trouble, set in the enclave of a small private prep school, a claustrophobic world where privacy and personal freedom can be in short supply. Tradition holds sway at Lancaster, an exclusive boarding school for wealthy students aiming for Ivy League universities. A few scholarships bring in students from poorer backgrounds, such as Betsy Pappas, a brilliant student from a small town north of Lancaster, the product of hippy parents, and Russell Hurley, a plumber’s son who is there because he’s so good at sport.

Not so, Arthur Winthrop. He’s the son of a Lancaster headmaster, and the grandson of a Lancaster headmaster, and carrying on in the same family tradition (a good literature degree from Yale and a teaching career), is now the headmaster of the title. We catch up with Arthur at the start of the book when he’s lost his way. Walking through Central Park in the snow, he has some sort of mental breakdown, removes his clothes, before finding himself in police custody and requested to explain his behaviour.

The story flips back to his obsession with a student, Betsy Pappas, who is not only attractive, but really gets Russian literature. Meanwhile his wife plays a lot of tennis, or spends time in their son’s room, missing Ethan who has disappointed his father by joining the army instead of going to Yale. The succession of Winthrops as Lancaster headmasters will likely end with Arthur.

And she thinks perhaps that is what love is: letting someone else see that part of you that shatters like glass… They will grow old together, broken together, and as long as they both don’t completely shatter at the same time, they might find a way to pick each other off the ground.

While the Headmaster’s Wife is about the Winthrops and their marriage, there’s also a mystery/suspense element that keeps you hooked. Communication problems, suppressed feelings as well as power and its abuse hover in the background. I was also reminded of that often quoted line from Philip Larkin’s poem, “This Be the Verse”. You know the one.

To say more would spoil one or two surprises that give the book the impetus that keeps you reading. The story structure is original, and you can’t help but admire the clever storytelling, the fine writing, but the book will tug at your heartstrings too. I was glad of the recommendation to pick this up, as it’s a quiet, unassuming looking book that would have otherwise escaped my radar. The Headmaster’s Wife scores a four out of five from me.

Book Review: Remarkably Bright Creatures by Shelby Van Pelt – a heart-warming debut that will have you cheering

I had no idea what to expect with this novel, which includes among its three main narrators an octopus. Marcellus the GPO (great Pacific octopus) inhabits a tank at an aquarium where he has a good view of humanity as it comes to peer at him. He may be missing sea life in the raw, but he’s learnt a lot about people, their weird sense of humour, their ugly eating habits, their lack of perspicacity. He hasn’t a lot of respect for the human race as a whole, but forges a bond with Tova, the seventy-year-old cleaner who each evening wipes the smears from the glass of his enclosure and at one point rescues him from disaster.

Tova is at a crossroads. She has been recently widowed but still rattles around in the house her Swedish father built, which is full of memories. The loss of her son at the age of eighteen is something she’s learnt to live with, if only she could understand what happened on the night he disappeared. Her friends think it’s time for her to find somewhere smaller, but maybe it’s time to think about a retirement home. After all there’s no one to take care of her when she gets too old to manage herself. However, the chatty Scot, Ethan, who runs the local store would be very sorry to see her go.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometres away, in California, Cameron is in a bad way. At thirty, he can’t seem to hold down a job, his Jeep has been repossessed and he seems to be running out of chances with his girlfriend. He’s bitter and resentful, still smarting since his mother abandoned him when he was nine. When his Auntie Jeanne gives him a box of his mother’s things, a lack of options has him heading north to Washington State in search of his father. With luck he’s the wealthy property developer Simon Brinks and Cameron can touch him for year’s of child support.

Over the course of the novel, all four characters’ stories collide and Cameron, Ethan, Tova and even Marcellus will help each other get to the truth. It isn’t difficult to guess what’s going on and the author uses dramatic irony to keep the reader turning the pages. You want to shout at the characters, especially Cameron, who has a lot of growing up to do, but also Tova, telling them not to be so hasty, or have another look at that clue. Marcellus is in the same boat as us, figuring things out long before the humans do, but then octopuses are remarkably bright creatures.

In an odd way Marcellus is the hero of the tory, and how Van Pelt makes this work is really charming. He’s a talented escapologist – just why are so many sea cucumbers disappearing? wonders his keeper – and a collector of glittering trifles. But time is not on his side and this adds to the tension.

Remarkably Bright Creatures is an altogether heart-warming read, well put-together with some interesting facts about sea creatures sprinkled through the story. I loved the North-West Pacific coastal setting, a fitting place for an aquarium, and the nosy but kindly locals. I’ll be looking out for Van Pelt’s next book. This one gets a four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Narrow Land by Christine Dwyer Hickey – an atmospheric historical drama and the perfect ‘quiet’ read

I recently came upon a post on Twitter asking readers to name their favourite ‘quiet’ books.. Among the recommendations were lots of my favourites and quite a few more I’d not heard of. Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead was there, and Barbara Pym, as well as Anne Tyler and Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April. And I thought, yes these are the authors that I read again and again. Now I can add The Narrow Land to the list – a book about the small dramas of people thrown together on Cape Cod during the summer of 1950.

Among the cast of characters is Ed Hopper. He’s the much-loved American painter who produced similarly quiet pictures of people and cars and architecture, the most famous of which is probably Nighthawks, showing late-night customers at a city diner. Ed and his wife Jo live in New York with a holiday house at Cape Cod. They make an odd couple, he’s very tall, quiet, solemn even, while she’s short, emotional and talkative. When we meet them they are in their sixties. Ed has the artist’s version of writer’s block; Jo anxiously quizzing him about possible subject matter, while regretting the sacrifice of her own artistic ambitions to further Ed’s career.

We also meet Michael, the ten-year-old German orphan adopted by a kindly New York couple after their own son’s death. He is sent for two weeks’ holiday with the Kaplans, a well-to-do family who support the charity that has rescued orphans like Michael. Mrs Kaplan is a Lady Bountiful type of character who is renting a large house on the cape with her daughter, Katherine, who is ill, and her glamorous daughter-in-law, the widow of Mrs K’s only son. As well as enjoying the benefits of a holiday by the sea, Michael will be company for Mrs K’s grandson, Richie.

Michael has plenty of demons – memories of the horrors of his war, the loss of his nationality, his language, but also the fear that his new parents won’t want him back – they are moving house and expecting another child. Then there’s fitting in with the tony Kaplans, knowing what to say and do. Richie, soon to be despatched to a new boarding school is chatty and excessively well-mannered, but also suffering the loss of his father.

When Jo tries to shoo the Kaplan’s from the beach in front of the Hoppers’ house, what begins as a seemingly awful social gaffe becomes the catalyst that throws the two households together. Everyone’s intrigued to meet Ed, who cringes at the thought of social engagements. But it’s the two lost and lonely boys who seem to connect with the artist and his wife. While Jo tries to make up with the Kaplans for her earlier bad manners, Ed roams around looking at buildings, their windows and doorways, sketching, walking and thinking. There’s a woman too whose image he can’t quite shake and feels he’s seen her somewhere around here before.

The Narrow Land is a slow burn of a read, with chapters named after some of the planets in Holst’s famous suite, a record loved by both Ed and Katherine. Stars are aligning, perhaps. Little by little, we get to know the characters and they are all written with immense sympathy though each have their faults. Against this, the wider story of the middle twentieth century and an America rebuilding after the war, while a new war in Korea is on the horizon. The characters are also battling it out – Ed and Jo bicker and walk out on each other, Michael and Richie don’t get along either. Only Katherine can soothe the troubled waters it seems, but she’s got her own battle on her hands.

In the background you have the Cape Cod summer, the wind riffling through the long grass, the boats on the water, the long, languid evenings. Did I mention this is also the perfect winter read? I particularly enjoyed the insight you get into Ed Hopper’s paintings, his artist’s eye, his struggles to find the right subject matter. Visual images, music and lingering scents of cigarettes and cologne add to the immediacy of the book, often seen through Michael’s point of view, the perfect impressionable young narrator.

The Narrow Land is an accomplished and spell-binding drama, easily a five out of five from me. It’s also the 2020 recipient of the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, and as such qualifies for one of the challenges in our library’s Turn Up the Heat winter reading programme: Read a Prize Winning Book. Put this ‘quiet’ novel on your to-read list.

Book Review: French Braid by Anne Tyler – a warmly insightful novel capturing the little cruelties of family life

A new Anne Tyler novel means a new family. This time we’ve got the Garretts: Mercy and Robin, parents to Alice, Lily and David. Again we’re in Baltimore which in Tyler’s world always comes across as a sensible, solid kind of city, oozing with good old-fashioned American values. But then that might be because the scenes are mostly in homes, often around a meal table.

French Braid begins with the next generation when Serena and her boyfriend James are waiting for a train to take them from Philadelphia to Baltimore. Serena thinks she’s spotted her cousin, but isn’t sure. She won’t even go up to Nicholas to see if it’s him, which James finds perplexing. How can you not know your own cousin? What kind of family is this? It’s a simple snapshot from ordinary life that displays something deeper, something Tyler does brilliantly. Have a look at the opening scene of The Accidental Tourist for the way Tyler shows a marriage in trouble. The Garretts seem to have become fragmented over the years, going for long stretches of time without meeting or checking in on each other.

Flip back to 1959 and the Garretts – Robin, Mercy and co. are off to the the lake for a summer holiday. You can tell they don’t do this often as Robin wears his work shoes and black socks when walking to the lake in his bathers. His mission is to teach David, a tender boy of around seven, to swim. His older sister Alice is helpful but bossy, and fifteen-year-old Lily is ensconced in a holiday romance. Mercy spends so much time painting at the kitchen table, she doesn’t notice what’s going on with her kids.

By the end of the holiday, Lily is heart-broken and David is withdrawn. Lily gets over the heartbreak, but David seems to withdraw further through the book, into his student years and beyond. Meanwhile, Mercy sets herself up with a studio a mere walk from home, complete with a divan and finds a new freedom as an artist. We’re through the sixties and out the other side by now, and the times they are a-changing. Tyler describes the fine line between loving your family and wanting to be your own person.

Morris. Mercy filed the name in her memory. So many unexpected people seemed to edge into a person’s life, once that person had children.

Like many of her books, French Braid appears to be a fairly simple story, full of everyday events that anyone might recognise. And while you don’t always like what the characters do, you can’t help warming to them as people. They could be members of your own family. Tyler has that knack of showing them in scenes full of humour, and yet simmering beneath it all is the potential for heartbreak. The burdens of little cruelties that the characters carry with them from childhood.

French Braid is a small book but perfectly formed. Everything is pitched just right – the naturalness of the dialogue, the plotting which rips through the years but still seems to keep you close to the characters, the way the things that are never talked about are at least as important than the things that are. It’s another gem from Tyler and gets a five out of five from me.

Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout – another foray into the world of Lucy Barton

Olive Kitteridge is the book that won Elizabeth Strout the Pulitzer Prize and the eponymous character has turned up other books, more recently in Olive, Again. Many readers love Olive for her frankness, her daring to be difficult and determination to be herself. However Lucy Barton is just as interesting. We’ve met her before too, so Elizabeth Strout has had plenty of time to get to know her and explore what makes her tick.

Lucy ‘comes from nothing’ according to her late mother-in-law, Catherine, and it’s true in a way. Lucy’s parents were terribly poor – her father suffering from PTSD following his war service; her mother, hardened by her situation, showed no affection for her children. Lucy had escaped her small town by winning a scholarship to college and has rarely returned, making a name for herself as a writer and now living in New York.

But it’s Lucy’s marriages that are the main focus of this book. Her first was to William, and it is with William that she has two grown up daughters. But William has a roving eye, and as soon as the girls finished their schooling, Lucy left him. William has remarried more than once and when his latest, much younger wife leaves him for another man, he decides to look into his family background. He has recently discovered his mother had left a baby daughter as well as her first husband before her marriage to William’s father. He plans a visit to Maine to meet this sister and asks Lucy, now a widow, to accompany him.

When William met me at LaGuardia Airport I saw him from afar and I saw that his khakis were too short. A little bit this broke my heart. He wore loafers, and his socks were blue, not a dark blue and not a light blue, and they showed a few inches until his khakis covered them. Oh William, I thought. Oh William!

The novel follows the road trip William and Lucy make through Maine, throwing up facts about William’s family and the complicated woman that was his mother. There are a few surprises here, but the book also delves into Lucy’s own marriage to William, which was often problematic for her as she had no sense of how to be a wife. She describes her more recent marriage to David as easier – the two being similar in having emerged from a childhood where there was no popular culture at home, no television or radio or any sense of what the world outside was like.

Written in the first person from Lucy’s point of view, we get a very intimate look at how Lucy thinks, her interactions with others and her relationships with her girls. The book is peppered throughout with her dialogue with William which is very like a couple who know each other well with all the gentle bickering and home truths. There are glimpses of Lucy’s relationship with Catherine, who buys her a a set of golf clubs for her birthday when she expressly asked for a book voucher – but Catherine always thought she knew best.

Oh William! is a short novel, often humorous and very real. It has a gentle storyline and while there are no twists or cliff-hanger chapter endings it kept me reading because every page is such a joy. The writing is so straight-forward and yet it feels crafted. By the end of the book you know Lucy and William so well, they could be your family. I think this is Elizabeth Strout’s secret weapon and why I love her books so much – they leave you with this feeling of warmth as if you’ve just been to visit a favourite aunt. Oh William! gets a four and a half out of five from me.

Book Review: The Last Romantics by Tara Conklin – sibling relationships under the spotlight

This is one of those books that you think will be about one thing and it turns out to be something completely different. The back-cover description talks about a tragedy one fateful summer, but exactly how that tragedy evolves doesn’t emerge until much later. And then there’s the title. Mmmm. I guess it might be true that we all read a different book when we pick up the same novel, but The Last Romantics is beguiling on several levels.

Not that this is a bad thing. On the contrary, I’m quite keen to be beguiled now and again, and The Last Romantics is also very appealing. The story opens in 2079, when we meet Fiona Skinner for the first time. She’s a very elderly famous poet onstage at a writer’s event before an audience of adoring fans. The young interviewer asks Fiona about the origin of her most famous love poem, a question she’s avoided for years. But it takes her back to the beginning, when she was a young child and the novel slips into the distant past.

We’re back to 1981, and Fiona describes her family following the death of the father. Fiona’s only four, but her brother, Joe, is old enough to be hurt and furious, while their mother is lost, unable to react at all. Two older sisters make up the family, Caroline who is gentle and sensitive, while eldest sister Renee at eleven takes on the responsibility for them all. She’s the one who makes sure that homework is done, clothes are washed and there’s food on the table, while their mother shuts herself away in her room for the best part of three years, a time that becomes known as The Pause.

We follow this family over the decades but mostly it’s about the relationship between Fiona and Joe who was her childhood hero. You can see the effect The Pause has had on all of them on the kinds of people they become, but always it is Joe who is the most fragile, swinging from being the man with it all to being on the brink of disaster. Fiona is one of those characters who is a watcher and observer, cataloguing her sex life with different men in a hugely popular blog. She’s the perfect narrator as she analyses her family interactions and looking back sees where she went wrong.

In a way this is a story of regrets, but families can be tough and eventually forgive and rebuild. The book has that gentle humour that you see with siblings – the elbow digs and eye-rolling. And the early pages capture the family through Fiona’s young eyes, the meaningful moments and human frailty caught in the gaze of an innocent. It is a novel that ebbs and flows as the years progress, a little flagging at times and full of events at others – which makes it more like real life in some ways. There’s sadness in the book but you can see how this inspires the poet that Fiona becomes.

I really enjoyed the book over all. It’s real and yet has an ephemeral quality as Fiona, an at times unreliable narrator, misreads the people who love her. Love is a key theme, in all its forms but family love mostly, and what happens when you put it to the test. If you want a different kind of love story, The Last Romantics is well worth picking up. It’s a four out of five read from me.