The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer (2010)

The women of Stellar Plains, New Jersey are preoccupied with sex: how much they are having, who they are having it with, whether they are enjoying it, and what to do to get more. From teenage girls who are just beginning their sexual lives to long-married women for whom sex is a distant memory; it is on the minds of the women of the entire town this December. (To be fair, sex is on the minds of the men in town too, but given that this is true most of the time, the thoughts the male residents of the town have about sex are less important in this story.)

The intimate lives of the women in town are heading for a shake-up, although in the opening pages of the book none of the female characters in The Uncoupling suspect what they are in for.  It is only when the high school drama teacher selects the Greek play, Lysistrata, that a cold wind begins to blow into the bedrooms of every woman in the story.

In the play, the women of ancient Greece are sick of the decades-long war that has stolen their husbands away, some forever, and decide they only have one weapon left: sex. They will withhold sex from all men until the war is brought to an end. In The Uncoupling, it is as if the ideas from the play begin to cast a spell one woman after another, causing each to inexplicably and irrevocably refuse to have sex.

It becomes clear that each woman’s refusal of sex has a deeply different cause from that of her neighbors. For sixteen year-old Willa, it is as if she is suddenly doubting whether love is real and whether she has let sex have too much power of her relationship. For Ruth, a mother of two toddlers and a newborn, the respite from her husband’s lackluster nightly sex sessions allows her time to set some guidelines for self-care which include stopping sex until her husband makes it worth her while. For Leanne, pausing all three sexual relationships she is in forces her to take a hard look at whether causal sex is really all she wants as she approaches 30. For forty-year-old Dory, it is the first time is more than 20-years of marriage that sex has not been at the center of her marriage and her sudden refusal shines a light on what the rest of her relationship with her husband brings to her life. For Bev, whose recent weight gain has led to conflict in the bedroom, the refusal to have sex is a demand to her husband: love me as I am (not as I was) or get out.

Wolitzer tells her tale with laugh-out loud humor as well as deep insight into the social forces that influence who a woman sleeps with and why. The book sheds a light on the various paths to sexual fulfillment women follow and attempts to remove the shame women feel about their bodies and their sexual appetites. A wonderful book that I highly recommend, even if you have found Wolitzer’s other works to be difficult to read.

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In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende (2017)

in the midst of winter

Lucia Maraz, a Chilean woman and visiting scholar, and Richard Bowmaster, Lucia’s American colleague at NYU and her landlord, live together in a brownstone in Brooklyn. Despite the fact that both Lucia and Richard are experts on South American politics,  their relationship is strictly professional. Both Richard and Lucia are approaching their mid-sixties and both feel that they have reached a cross-roads in their lives. Lucia is recovering from a second bout of breast cancer and has moved to America wanting to live her life with verve and adventure. Richard is punishing himself for the horrific end to his marriage twenty years prior and has decided that, despite crippling loneliness, it is best to protect his heart and finish his life alone; a decision that has meant Lucia’s attempts to befriend Richard have all failed.

That is, until a blizzard strikes New York City trapping the two in the house they share and setting into motion a bizarre series of events that will ask the two to bridge the gap between them to help others. On an errand, Richard is involved in an car accident with a young woman and, even though the crash is not too serious, the woman is clearly terrified. In rapid Spanish, she attempts to tell Richard about her predicament but he is unable to follow her story: all he can make out is she is driving her employer’s car without permission. In desperation, Richard gives the young lady his home address and asks her to come see him after the storm with promises that he will help her explain the crash to her employer.

Evelyn Ortega knows as soon as she is hit by Richard Bowmaster that she cannot return to her employer’s home. With no other options given the horrendous conditions of the blizzard, she does the only thing she can think of: she goes to Richard’s home. Richard is shocked to find the young woman on his doorstep just an hour later, speaking Spanish and insisting on coming inside. Feeling as though he has no other options, he begs his housemate Lucia to help translate.

What transpires next will change the lives of all three people forever. Evelyn tells the two a story that began more than twenty years ago. From the time of her birth in a small Guatemalan village, Evelyn’s life was one of endless hard work. She tells the others of horrific acts of violence, wars, abuse, hunger, and about the terror that consumed her entire childhood; and in doing so paints of picture of Guatemala in the early twenty-first century.  Her story is one of survival; survival only made possible by Evelyn’s harrowing immigration to the US and her job working illegally for a man in New York who would not hesitate to punish her harshly for “borrowing” his car.

Snowbound in the house and unable to calm Evelyn  — who is terrified her boss will track her down and fire her, deport her, or possibly even kill her — Lucia tells the young woman and Richard about her own childhood in post-WW2 Chile and her own struggles with political upheaval, violence, and fear over the following decades.

Finally Richard shares his family’s story; beginning with his father’s escape from the Nazi’s; through his years married to a Brazilian woman and living in South America; to present day. His story also highlights the enormous changes — political and social — that have swept over South American in since the middle of the twentieth century.

As they tell their stories, the three begin to bond. Evelyn begins to trust that these people will help her escape her situation in New York. Lucia and Richard begin to grow closer to one another, their loneliness lessening with each word shared. By helping Evelyn, the other two begin to see a new purpose for their lives and a new path forward together.

 

 

Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin (2017)

young jane young zevin

Zevin’s novel, Young Jane Young, centers around a political sex scandal that changes the lives of the women who take turns narrating the story. When twenty-year old congressional intern, Aviva Grossman, has an affair with her boss, she thinks the worst thing that can happen is that her heart will be broken. She is terribly wrong. Their affair is revealed — in excruciating detail, by multiple press outlets for months — and her life is completely ruined while the Congressman’s only mildly disrupted.

The book’s opening chapters are told from the point of view of Aviva’s mother, Rachel Shapiro, who is reflecting on the scandal more than a decade after it happens. Not only did the affair cost her daughter her name and reputation, but it contributed the end of Rachel’s career as well and hastened the end of Rachel’s marriage to Aviva’s father. Worst of all, the scandal drove Aviva away from her home and she has not spoken to her parents since she fled Florida in disgrace. Rachel outlines the nitty-gritty of the scandal and remains dazed that her family is still suffering aftershocks all these years later. The damage to her family seems especially outrageous considering the fact that the Congressman has gone on with great success, winning multiple terms in office and even remained married to his wife.

The next narrator up is Jane Young, a wedding planner in rural Maine and single mother to Ruby. Jane was been involved in the Aviva Grossman scandal and her subsequent fall from grace; she is haunted by the power the scandal seems to have even after almost a decade and finds it outrageous that Aviva suffers all of the consequences while the Congressman seems to have faced none. When she crosses a local man who is threatened by her ambition and his inability to bully her, she suddenly finds that connection between Jane Young and Aviva Grossman might come back to haunt her once again.

Our third narrator, 13-year old Ruby Young, tells her story through a series of emails to her pen pal. Ruby has been helping her mother Jane run for mayor of their small town and an internet search reveals that her mother is Aviva Grossman, that she became Jane Young after the scandal drove her away from Florida and into a life of hiding. Ruby is outraged by her mother’s dirty secret and swayed by the blatant slut-shaming she finds in the online stories.  Ruby also begins to suspect that the Congressman is her father.

Next up, we hear from the wife of the Congressman, Embeth Levin, and about her life during the 13 years since the scandal. We learn of her thirty-year long marriage to a man she deeply loves and believes in, but a man who cheated on and humiliated her in front of the entire world. She has had to suppress her own ambitions to be his supportive spouse and has been forced to smile while he admits his affairs to the public. When Ruby Young arrives on her doorstep, she is forced to relive the entire scandal and is now left wondering if her husband is the young girl’s father. If so, it would be another scandal…one she is too exhausted to weather.

Finally, we hear from 20-year old Aviva Grossman about how she entered into the affair that would change her life and how she emerged from the wreckage of the scandal as Jane Young, a entirely new woman she if forced to create to avoid being shamed for her past mistakes.

With humor and honesty, Young Jane Young draws attention to the outrageous double standards that women face throughout their lives: the emphasis on their looks and youth; the disparagement they face for having ambitions; the judgement they face for their mistakes, especially sexual indiscretions; and the professional uphill battles they often endure.

 

Year One by Nora Roberts (2017)

Chronicles of The One series, Book #1

In Year One, Nora Roberts has published what I consider one of the best books she has written in years, and I have read every single book she has ever written. This futuristic novel is a combination dystopian science-fiction thriller and fantasy story: introducing readers to a cast of characters, both human and super-human, who are fighting preserve the United States from an apocalyptic civil war.

As the story opens (presumably in 2017,) an ill passenger boards a flight from Dublin to New York City and unknowingly infects hundreds of people who cross his path. This man sets into motion a violent, deadly plague — called The Doom — that in less than a month kills more than half of the world’s population. In almost no time at all, The Doom causes cities to crumble, governments to dissolve, and turns the United States into a violent waste-land.

Among the survivors there emerges three distinct groups of people: humans who are for unknown reasons immune to The Doom; a population of peaceful magical people (called The Uncanny) who have extraordinary powers; and their murderous counter-parts, The Dark Uncanny. Fear and paranoia grows between the three groups, as everyone struggles to find a way to survive in a world that is quickly running out of supplies needed to keep the remaining population alive.

A group of main characters emerge from the over-arching story, humans and Uncanny who want to work together to build a new, peaceful civilization. This group rescues survivors, stockpiles food, medicines, and other essentials, and who — after a months-long struggle — begins to build a city together, New Hope. At New Hope, the residents take up farming, raising animals, building schools and hospitals, and offering each other solace and peaceful respite from the bloody battles that have raged since the epidemic emerged.

However, two terrifying threats appear on the horizon and threaten all of the hard work the residents of New Hope have done. The Purity Warriors are a group of Christian extremist determined to rid the world of the Uncanny, often in the most bloody and horrific ways. The Dark Uncanny also begin to grow in power, they are using their supernatural abilities to kill everyone who attempts to control them — human or superhuman. A civil war begins to brew between the three groups.

One woman, an Uncanny named Lana, who has worked for months to protect survivors and help bring them from the across the country to New Hope becomes the target of increasingly terrifying attacks; many people begin to believe that she is the person prophesied to bring an end to the civil war to the restore peace to what is left of the United States.

This book is Nora Roberts at her very best: a unique and thrilling story populated with great characters; one that she manages to keep well-balanced between contemporary drama, science-fiction, and fantasy. I am looking forward to Book 2!

 

Artemis by Andy Weir (2017)

artemis

Andy Weir, author of the wildly popular novel The Martian, returns with another (unrelated) science fiction novel set in space. Artemis, a colony built on the moon, is home to approximately 2000 Artemisians who run mining operations, conduct scientific experiments, and — for the vast majority of the moon’s permanent residents — work in jobs serving the wealthy tourists from Earth.

Enter our anti-heroine, Jasmine Bashara, a shady smuggler who has a reputation on the moon for drinking, promiscuity, and trouble-making. “Jazz” sees herself as someone just trying to get by, someone willing to bend the rules in order to better her place in the economic hierarchy on Artemis. Since the moon is sovereign, the laws there are flexible and illicit business dealings are par for the course: somethings that many residents, not just Jazz, take advantage of.

After several rocky years since leaving her father’s home, Jazz is still living in the worst section of the moon city and barely saving up enough to cover the basics. When one of the planet’s wealthiest citizens (a man for whom Jazz often smuggles illegals onto the planet) makes her an offer for millions of “slugs” (moon currency) to help him with a dangerous task, Jazz agrees. Seeing dollar signs and not danger signs, Jazz initiates a wild attack on the on-planet mining company and sets into motion a complex series of events that lead to chaos, corruption, and murder.

The author’s, admittedly considerable, knowledge of the phsyics and the realities of the atmosphere on the moon helps add the believability of the plot. He has clearly done extensive research into the technical aspects of the book and, although he gets carried away a lot with the details, the more complex parts of the setting are conveyed well to readers. Setting aside, the plot of the book is a bit stale and the pacing of the story uneven…it is clear that those parts of the book were less considered than the space city where the action takes place.

Additionally, Weir does an admirable job creating a cast of characters that spans all races, ethnicities, religions, and income levels, and in having chosen to divert from most sci-fi literature in telling the story through the eyes of a young, brilliant, bad-ass Saudi Arabian/Artemisian woman. However, the characters come across as juvenile and insufficiently fleshed out, conversing with stilted dialogue and following unrealistic story detours arguing over petty grievances they have with one another.

While it was an enjoyable book and a fast read, Artemis left something to be desired in the way of  character development and plot. My guess is that the movie will be better than the book.

The Great Reckoning by Louise Penny (2016)

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, Book #12

great reckoning l penny

The the main character of Louise Penny’s outstanding mystery series, Armand Gamache, returns to solve another mystery in A Great Reckoning. In this installment, he must solve a murder, uncover a complicated corruption scheme, and he must also face some painful truths about his own past — revealing secrets he has been keeping for most of his life — in order to solve the crimes.

When the previous book ended, Armand was faced with answering the question “what next?” What would be the next chapters in his personal and professional lives? That question is answered in the opening chapters when Penny reveals that Armand has come out of retirement to take over running the Sûreté du Québec Academy. Armand hopes to undo the damage that years of abusive leadership has wrought and to help lead the young cadets in becoming wise and respectful officers.

When Armand took over the Academy, he fired most of the old professors and hired new ones to lead the students without cruelty. However, he left in place the most corrupt, cruelest, and most abusive of the old professors — Serge Le Duke — in the hope that having the man on campus would help Armand uncover proof of his corruption and place him in prison.

A few months into his tenure, Armand feels that he is making progress with the students and feels that the safer, more accepting Academy culture is training a new generation of talented investigators. Armand is wrong.

Serge Le Duke is found murdered, execution style, in his private rooms and all of the evidence suggests that either a student or professor was responsible for the crime. Immediately, four students emerge as central to the case. Armand and the other investigators know that these students know more than they are telling, but are they covering up committing the crime? Or are they covering up information that would lead to the killer?

In a questionably legal decision, Armand moves the four cadets to his home village of Three Pines for the duration of the investigation. To keep the cadets busy, he tasks them with finding out the origins of a mysterious map that has been found in the village and — baffling, a copy of the same map was found in the murdered man’s rooms — to see if the students can find out how the map relates to the case.

Armand’s decisions regarding the new rules at the Academy; his choice of cadets he admitted to the school; his decision to move the four cadets to Three Pines; and his decision to leave a corrupt man in a power position are all cloaked in mystery. In order to catch the killer, Armand must answer these questions and many more about his shady actions in the recent months; his answers will not only expose his secrets to his family and colleagues, but also expose secrets that may harm the four cadets at the center of the mystery.

 

 

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro (2017)

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.
You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. The left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck — there was a forest.
You were in luck — there were no trees.
You were in luck — a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant . . .

From “Could Have” by Wislawa Szymborska (quoted on page 18-19)

This beautiful, brief memoir is about marriage: not the heady reckless days of being newlyweds, nor about looking back from a distance at the long years of children and grandchildren, but rather about the middle years of a marriage. The years of a marriage that are marked by mortgages, teenagers, and adult responsibilities; the years when routines speed up time and parents grow frail, the years when a couple must work to recall the wild love of their early days and work to keep their bond strong so they can reach those golden years. Hourglass — told in a Virginia Woolf-inspired style — a is spectacular exploration of the special, fragile time that marks middle marriage and how rewarding and challenging a time it can be for a couple.

Shapiro examines her own marriage with honesty and courage; displaying the things she gets right and the things that go wrong. A deep, almost desperate, vulnerability is required to make a marriage work. Two people bind themselves together when things are the very best, in the hope that things will always be rosy, always go as well. But then life happens — illnesses, lost jobs, deaths, births, near-misses, and lost chances — and you must hope that the strength of your love and your commitment to one another can weather these storms; that you can go on believing in the happy ending even when the future is a complete unknown.

Shapiro also examines the choices she and her husband did and did not make —  each corner not turned, every job not taken — and wonders, would other choices have led to a different me? a different him? a different us? Marriage, she believes, is living with each and every choice you’ve made and knowing that each step has brought you to where you are right now; marriage is having faith that this place is the right place to be.

Upon finishing the book I am struck by how wildly optimistic getting married really is. Two people make a commitment (that no matter how easily made, one that is very difficult to undo) and set out to build a life with no guarantees, with no safety nets. Your marriage requires that everyday — many times each day — you must look upon your relationship as meaningful and worthwhile, something as important and valuable today as it was on your wedding day.

Middle marriage are the years when you hold on to one another tightly, hoping wildly that the best years are still yet to come, and still believing there is no one else you would want beside you than your partner. What a wild leap of faith to take! What a wonderful treasure when you find yourself alongside someone worth taking that risk with.

— To my Husband, S. who I adore now as much as then