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.

Book Review: The Paper Palace by Miranda Cowley Heller – an intense story about family, secrets and the path not taken

You can’t help feeling sorry for Eleanor (Elle) who spends the decades that span The Paper Palace unable to forget her dearest friend and soulmate. She and Jonas have been driven apart by a terrible secret – a horrific sequence of events that casts a shadow over the rest of their lives. We follow them through the years from when they first met, one Cape Cod summer, to the present day several decades later, having built their lives without each other. But we all know that secrets like theirs are sure to come out sooner or later.

The Paper Palace is the nickname given to the holiday home where much of the action takes place, in particular the single day that connects the plot. It’s the day friends and relations have come together to remember Elle’s sister. The summer home has been in the family for generations, a collection of bush-carpentry buildings that include a large kitchen/living space and a number of cabins right on the edge of a wide, swimmable pond. Here, Elle and her older sister Anna ran wild ever summer, a relief from those chilly New York winters, growing up as their parents divorce, take on new lovers, remarry and divorce again.

Elle’s mother, Wallace, states that divorce is good for children, and makes other odd declarations such as that unhappy people are more interesting. Jonas’s partner, Gina, perpetually sunny and straightforward, obviously cuts no ice with Wallace. Elle and Anna are beautiful, confident girls in spite of their mother’s remoteness, her stark comments, her lack of awareness of how her life choices affect her children. Somehow they survive their childhood, have careers and relationships.

But everything comes back to one event in Elle’s teenage years and its consequences, until a much later revelation casts a new light on a decision she made a long time ago. This plot device plus the now and before structure makes you gallop through the pages to learn how that secret will impact on the future. The writing is sharp and funny at times, but best of all is the evocation of summer and long summer vacations. There are butterflies, racoons and shorebirds: bonfires on the beach; walks through the forest as well as swimming and boating. It’s almost like you’re on holiday with them all, in one of the spare cabins. There is definitely a filmic quality, and I can see movie rights being discussed even now.

I just wish I liked the characters more. Elle has a decent career and happy marriage in spite of the events of her growing up but still agonises over Jonas, a character who me for was never quite real. Anna can be cruel, the various parental figures weak, offhand or just plain strange. People are either beautiful in an unspecified way, or if they are ugly, their flabbiness and skin conditions are described in detail. Nobody is just a bit ordinary. This was a little distasteful to me and detracted from the sympathy I should have had for the main characters. And while the story was engaging, it was also somewhat exhausting and I found it a relief to finish. A three out of five read from me.

Book Review: Run by Ann Patchett

Another book-fair find, this earlier work by Ann Patchett is well worth picking up. Bracketed between an opening chapter describing how the late and lovely Bernadette Doyle came to acquire a statuette of the Virgin that looks just like her and a chapter decades later when one of her sons is about to receive his degree, most of the story takes place over a couple of days during a Boston winter.

Ex-mayor, Bernard Doyle loves going to political lectures but his two adopted sons, Teddy and Tip, aren’t so keen. Doyle has high hopes for his sons – the political ambitions he was unable to achieve himself. We catch up with Tip in the university lab where he studies fish, waiting for Teddy who is always late. Snow is falling as the two rush to the seats Doyle has saved for them to hear Jesse Jackson.

Later in the street, Tip pleads with his father to return to his lab then steps blindly into the path of a car, saved at the last second by a woman who pushes him aside. She is hit and badly injured, the family gathering round her to wait for the ambulance, while her young daughter, Kenya, tries to keep her warm and be the responsible adult at only eleven. As her mother is taken off to hospital, and there is no one else to care for Kenya, the Doyle family are drawn to this spirited and practical young girl and find themselves stepping in. While they wait for news of the woman’s prognosis, they all discover connections they couldn’t have possibly imagined.

Told from the varying viewpoints of Tip, Teddy, their older brother (the prodigal Sullivan), as well as Doyle, Kenya and her mother, surprises are revealed in conversations brought on by the accident. In many ways it is a small story, just a day or two during a bitterly cold Boston winter, but there are links far back into the past. It all comes together to create a very original and engaging story – some things you won’t see coming – with themes around what makes a family, racial inequality, honour and reputation as well as what we might do for the ones we love.

Patchett draws characters with great empathy, showing their faults and weaknesses, as well as their yearnings to do better, the love and the friction they share with family members. And as with her more recent books, Commonwealth and The Dutch House, she’s great with how she writes about siblings. Overall, it’s a very satisfying read, well written and nicely put together. It’s always worth checking out the back catalogues of authors like Patchett (this one is from 2007). Run is a four out of five star read from me.

Book Review: Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

There was a time when I was an avid Jane Austen reader adding an Austen novel to my reading talley each year. And then there was such a plethora of TV and movie adaptations and they were enjoyable, sure, but somehow my interest waned. Then along came the Austen Project – four modern novels based on four Austen novels, written by well-known authors and kicking off with Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility.

I’d quite liked Trollope’s version; it was fun but the characters were annoying. Perhaps the characters in the Austen were too – it’s not my favourite Austen by a long chalk. So I forgot about TAP altogether. And then I happened upon Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s take on Pride and Prejudice. Honestly, I enjoyed this book so much I could have sat down and read it through all over again.

Eligible is set in Cincinnati, mostly, with episodes also in New York and California. Mrs Bennett is excited about a certain Chip Bingley who has come to town as an ER doctor at a Cincinnati hospital. Chip is the recent star of a TV reality series called Eligible (somewhat like The Batchelor), where he broke down in tears during the last episode, unable to choose a bride between the two lovelies who made the final. With five unmarried daughters, Mrs B’s keen to orchestrate a social event where they can meet Chip.

Journalist Liz Bennett has been living in New York for years along with her yoga instructor sister Jane but both are recalled to Cincinnati to help when their father has heart surgery. They can’t rely on their mother to feed him a healthy diet and their younger sisters, still living at home though well into their twenties, are useless. Mary spends her time in her room working on her PhD, while Lydia and Kitty are obsessed with working out and don’t even have jobs.

Liz is really the only one who doesn’t need a top up from the Bank of Mom & Dad, and she is appalled at the state of repair of the Bennett family home. When medical bills make it seem impossible to hang onto the house that has been in the family for generations, Liz steps in to try to persuade her parents to sell and the younger Bennetts to get paid employment.

Then there’s the rest of the P&P cast. Darcy, of course, another high flyer at the hospital but with the original snooty disposition we have come to know and love so well; Jasper Wick(ham), a former colleague, best friend and married lover of Liz; Charlotte is Liz’s old friend from home, too plump to attract a Chip Bingley, but a career whizz nevertheless. Women can do anything as we know, in spite of failing on the marriage market, a sentiment emphasised by long-term feminist and women’s rights campaigner, Kathy de Bourgh. Liz has been trying to interview Kathy de Bourgh for her Women Who Dare column for what seems forever.

Throw in an African American realtor and a trans gym owner and you have plenty more to send Mrs Bennett into a spin. Much comedy ensues and the story builds to a brilliant reality tv finale which rounds the story off nicely.

Curtis Sittenfeld has captured all the silliness of modern life in a way that fits the Pride and Prejudice story beautifully. We’ve got the witty dialogue, the terrific characterisation, the misunderstandings and miscommunications you’d expect, all suitably updated. I’d forgotten how much I loved the original and want to read it again. For this and several hours of wonderful entertainment I’m going to give this one a five out of five.

Book Review: On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks doesn’t write happy novels but there is much joy to be had in reading them. The writing is wonderful, the characters flawed but interesting with enough of their history that you can see why they are the way they are. With On Green Dolphin Street we have three people, each of them bright and talented, but who are struggling with other people’s expectations of them and the politics of their time.

Mary lost her fiancĂ© in the Africa campaign of World War 2. She didn’t think she’d ever fall in love quite like that again. Then she met Charlie, a dazzling young man who made everyone laugh and the room come alive. We catch up with them a decade or so later, married and living in Washington where Charlie’s a career diplomat at the British Embassy. It’s 1960 and we have a sense of a world where things are beginning to change.

Charlie had been an officer in the war, and still remembers all the letters he’d had to write to the loved ones of his men fallen in battle. At work a lot depends on Charlie too, all that glad-handing, maintaining a perpetual state of exuberance while his finances are shaky to say the least. It’s not surprising that he self-medicates with alcohol.

Then there’s Frank, a journalist fighting his way back into political reporting after an FBI probe deemed him unsafe a few years before – the McCarthy era hadn’t been kind to the press. Frank still dreams of all the enemy soldiers he had to kill in the war, remembering all the chilling details. He considers all the men he sees on the street, wondering if they too are murderers. The thoughts are fleeting as Frank is too busy with an upcoming election. Old hand Richard Nixon is poised to win, if only he can hold off newbie John Kennedy. But it’s the young buck who looks so much more assured on television.

The election provides an interesting backdrop to the main drama of the novel: a love triangle, triggered by the party when Frank met Mary. The story of their affair adds a lot of the dramatic moments through the book, fraught with difficulties of distance (Frank in New York based at the NY Times), and all the people who depend on Mary, particularly her children, but also her parents in England (Mary’s mother is ill) and not least of all, Charlie, who is struggling to keep himself together.

Ultimately it is Mary we most feel for as it is Mary who has to decide the fate of all three. With no career of her own, in spite of a university education and her mother having been a doctor, her role in life is to be the perfect hostess, wife and mother. Under this facade is a seething mess of feelings. In their own ways it’s not so different for Charlie and Frank, the secrets, the emotions. No wonder there are a lot martinis and scotch going down. Goodness, such a lot!

I was very moved by On Green Dolphin Street. It could have been a little maudlin, but it all seemed so real, the characters so intense and believable, and the politics of America in the midst of an election resonating with today. Lovers of New York will be enchanted by Frank’s informative tour of the city. Throughout, we have Faulks’s nice way of prose, though he likes to show off his vocabulary (describing a little boy peeing off a balcony as ‘micturating’). It’s a very minor quibble in a novel that is in all other ways memorable and superbly crafted with an ending that took my breath away. A four and a half star read from me.