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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The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine (2017)

last mrs parrish

Amber Patterson may seem unassuming and naive, a young girl who is out of her depths living among the super-rich residents on Bishops Harbor, Connecticut; but she is not. Behind the plain clothes and subservient demeanor is a scheming, ambitious woman who will do just about anything to become the wife one of the town’s super-rich men. Her target is the wealthiest of them all: Jackson Parrish.

The only problem is that Jackson Parrish is already happily married to a gorgeous and smart woman named Daphne. Amber decides winning Jackson’s temporary attention is not enough, she wants to become his second wife. In order to do that, she must implement a complex plan that will allow her to befriend Daphne, grow close to the family, and try to worm her way into Jackson’s heart from his inner circle.

As her plan is set into motion, Amber is thrilled to find that Daphne accepts her with ease and soon she is almost a part of the family. With skill and ease, she manipulates Daphne time and again, each move bringing her closer and closer to Jackson.

But Daphne has a secret of her own, her life — while lavish and filled with glamour — is not the fairy-tale it appears from the outside. Amber, blinded by greed and lust, misses all of the warning signs and positions herself to take over a life she knows nothing about.

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.

 

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

 

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng (2017)

little fires everywhere ng

The affluent and well-tended community of Shaker Heights, Ohio was created nearly one hundred years ago with the aim to build a suburban utopia. Precisely planned and governed by copious rules and restrictions, the community aims to be perfect in every way. Shaker Heights has excellent schools, no crime, generous community resources, natural beauty and a uniform look and feel that sends the message to visitors that Shaker Heights is flawless. Being a Quaker village, the town does welcome some poor and disenfranchised individuals into its utopia… as long as they are willing to hide any of the problems or imperfections behind a well-tended facade. The wealthy living there feel not only entitled and safe, but also virtuous for allowing their “less than” neighbors to stay.

“Shaker Heights has been founded…with the idea of creating a utopia. Order — and regulation, the father of order — had been the Shaker’s key to harmony. They had regulated everything to…make a little refuge in the world. Perfection: that was the goal, and perhaps the Shaker’s had lived it so strongly it has seeped into the soil itself, feeding those who grew up their with a deep propensity to overachieve and a deep intolerance for flaws.” 22-23

Into this community come Mia Warren — a wayward artist and jane-of-all-trades — and her teenage daughter Pearl. The mother and daughter move into a rental property owned by Elena and Bill Richardson; whose great wealth allows them to earmark the rental for “needy” tenants. Having lived a nomadic and often spare lifestyle up until now, Mia has arrived in Shaker Heights with a promise to Pearl: they will stay put long enough for Pearl (a genius student) to finish her diploma at the community’s elite public high school and get into college.

Almost immediately, Pearl and Mia draw the attention of the Richardson’s four children. The two sons in the family are drawn to Pearl with her eccentric, bohemian beauty and her stunning intelligence. The oldest Richardson’s daughter Lexie, sees a shy and slightly nerdy girl to take under her wing and Izzy, the youngest daughter, becomes enamored with Mia. To Izzy, Mia is everything the other mothers in Shaker Heights are not: wild, non-conformist, and artistic — a woman who does not care at all about following the rules or fitting in.

Mia, despite her initial unease at the rigidity of the community, settles in once she realizes her daughter is thriving in school and has made friends with the Richardson children. But soon her unease returns, as Pearl begins to grow even closer with the wealthy, wild, Richardson kids: mimicking their behavior and allowing them to assert more and more influence over her.

“To a parent, your child wasn’t just a person, your child was a place, a kind of Narnia, a vast eternal place where the present you were living and the past you remembered and the future you longed for all existed at once. Each time you left it, each time your child passed out of your sight, you feared you might never be to return to that place again.” 122

Meanwhile, Elena Richardson notices that her daughter Izzy’s infatuation with Mia continues to grow and (like Mia) worries about the influence this very different, wild, rule-adverse woman has over her daughter. As a woman who has build her life around restraint and obedience, Mia represents someone who is determined cause trouble and upset the “natural” order of things. A solution presents itself: Mia will work part-time as the Richardson’s housekeeper and both women can keep an eye out on the other.

“All her life, Elena had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Better to control the spark and pass it from one generation to the next. Or, perhaps, to tend it carefully like an eternal flame: a reminder of light and goodness that would never — could never — set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled. Domesticated. Happy in captivity.” 161

Mia Warren has spent her adult life hiding and running, but is determined to keep her head down and allow her daughter these few years to be a normal teen. However, Mia is inadvertently drawn into a local scandal — one that pits a poor immigrant woman against one of the town’s wealthiest families — that threatens to expose her secrets to the world, and more importantly, to Pearl.

Once the initial story has been established, Ng’s wonderful writing and story-telling really get a chance to deepen and pull readers further in. Soon we get glimpses deep into the hearts of each of the characters — teen and adult — and see their pain, their worries, and learn more about what motivates their actions. It is in this second half of the book where the author’s characters really shine, and where she is able to present a series of troubling mysteries that she expertly unravels for us.

A wonderfully written and compelling story about what it means to be a mother; what it means to be a family; and what the risks are to disobeying the rules…and the (sometimes even greater) risks to following them.

 

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman (2017)

rules of magic hoffman

“Do as you will, but harm no one. What you give will be returned to you threefold. Fall in love whenever you can.” From the Owen Family Grimoire

The three Owens’ siblings — Franny, Jet, and Vincent — have always known they were different from other Manhattan children: with their child psychologist father who sees them as experiments and a mother who makes them follow harsh, incomprehensible rules and lies to them about her family history.

It is only when they become teenagers that just how different they are becomes clear: mind reading, talking to animals, ability to attract or repel people as they wished, and even occasional glimpses into the future are certainly not common gifts. When they approach their parents about these talents, they are told it is nothing, only nonsense. But the children know there is much, much more to it than that.

The year the oldest daughter, Franny, turns seventeen, an summer invitation arrives asking the teens to stay in Salem, Massachusetts with a Great-Aunt who lives in the Owen family ancestral home. All three readily agree to go, despite their father’s protests (their magic should have been nurtured out of them) and their mother’s protests ( they did not know what powerful forces they were tempting.) But the very existence of the invite and the reluctant acknowledgment from their parents that what they could do was magic is too thrilling to ignore.

The teenagers arrive in another world: a place where magical powers are common attributes; where their relatives are considered both cursed and capable of great power; and where they must face the knowledge that the paths they choose could have great consequences.

Franny is curious to know why her mother has lied to her children and hidden from her past. What made her mother so terrified of her children exploring their magical powers? It is in the local library that Franny learns of the curse on the Owens’ witches — cast down upon them more than three-hundred years ago from a women, heartbroken and abandoned– the curse: “ruination for any man who fell in love with them.”

Franny is desperate to know which rules she should follow, the request of the family’s Grimoire, that she “fall in love whenever you can,” or the threat of the family curse that warns of “ruination?” The answer, her beloved aunt tells her, is complicated. It lies in the actions of each member of their family and who they love, but to ignore the curse would be foolish and deeply dangerous.

When a series of accidents, heartbreaks, and deaths occur in quick succession after that summer the three siblings — suddenly alone — know that their magic has grave consequences and that what they choose to do with their powers can indeed ruin their loved ones, and themselves. All three must grapple with the family gifts and the family curse for the rest of their lives: shall they live in fear? In denial? With reckless abandon? What path would be best?

October Family Movie Series!

Every October my family also commits to watching scary (or not-so-scary when my six-year-old is awake) movies on weekends throughout month. Since I received some great feedback when I blogged about our Summer Movies Series, I thought I would put a list of the movies we pull out year after year, and a few of the scary movies we have in the queue this year.

(Read about the summer movie recommendations here https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2017/06/18/summer-movie-series-a-family-quest/ )

For the entire family:

  • Hocus Pocus (this is scarier for some kids than others, but our family LOVES it!)
  • ET
  • Hotel Transylvania 1 and 2
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Chamber of Secrets
  • Just Add Magic (Amazon original TV Series)
  • Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Disney 1930s) — find it on YouTube
  • Haunted Pumpkin of Sleepy Hollow — find it on YouTube
  • Spooky Buddies
  • Monsters Inc and Monsters University
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks and the Werewolf
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks and Frankenstein
  • Casper (Disney)
  • Daffy Duck Quackbusters
  • Toy Story Terror (2013, TV special)
  • Curious George’s BooFest
  • Dreamworks Halloween Special
  • Its the Great Pumpkin Halloween Charlie Brown
  • Scooby Doo — All of the movies and episodes are great for Halloween, but some take place on the holiday. Try the movies Goblins King, Witch’s Ghost, Frankencreepy (also episodes “Headless Horseman” “Scarecrow, “Cornfield Clem” “To Switch a Witch”)

For older kids:

  • Monster House (this is PG but it scared my kids before they were 9)
  • Goosebumps (2015)
  • The Haunted Mansion (Disney movie with Eddie Murphy)
  • The Goonies — This movie is rated PG-13 but we let our kids watch it, even our youngest, but we do cover eyes during some scenes and there are a few sex references in the opening scenes.
  • Ghostbusters (PG13)
  • Beetlejuice (PG13)
  • Fun Size (PG13 , parents should watch first as it contains lots of relationship drama)

Some movies the adults are checking out this October:

  • The Cure for Wellness
  • Get Out
  • It (we are heading to the theater to catch the remake!)
  • The Sixth Sense (we always pick a few throwbacks!)
  • Psycho (have to include this amazing classic! plan to make our teen watch to see what a true horror film looks like!)
  • Ouija
  • The Conjuring
  • Friday the 13th (got watch at least one slasher flick!)
  • Scream (and for comparison Scary Movie) which we are watching with our teen, who is convinced he is ready for horror movies.
  • X-Files — so, so many great episodes to watch. Perfect for when we’re too tired for a whole movie, but you want to be scared!