This One is Mine by Maria Semple (2008)

“Maria Semple writes with comic brilliance in this smart, compassionate, wickedly funny take on our need for more — and the sometimes disastrous choices we make in the name of happiness.” From the book jacket of This One is Mine

This One is Mine

Maria Semple has written a truly extraordinary novel in This One is Mine. It is populated with richly drawn characters; whose stories are compelling, intense, and reflective of some of the best and worst of human nature; and told throughout with smart, crisp, funny voice that is unique to Semple. This first novel of hers is grittier, edgier, and darker than her two more recent best-sellers, Where Did You Go Bernadette? and Today Will Be Different (reviewed here http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1mx ) and does not rely, as those two novels do, on gimmicky multi-textural elements.  This novel is simply a dynamic story told by a master storyteller, whose insight into the desperation of people chasing down their version of “happiness” is spot on.

Violet and David Parry are an LA power couple, immensely rich and widely envied for their lavish lifestyle and celebrity friends. They are also deeply unhappy in their marriage, teetering on the edge of divorce, and unable to communicate with one another about simple things…and certainly not about what is happening to their marriage. David finds himself disgusted with his wife’s descent from edgy TV writer and intellectual into a deeply depressed stay-at-home mother whose only past-time — he believes — is spending his money.

Violet also does not recognize herself, physically and mentally emptied by post-partum depression and her husband’s increasingly cruel emotional abuse. She is woken up from her numbness when she meets Teddy, a ex-junkie, musician, and sex addict who makes her feel alive with his obsession with her. Through Teddy, Violet once again is reminded of the smart, creative, sexy woman she used to be; the reawakening of those feelings are like a drug to her. Suddenly, she is doing anything and everything for Teddy, including risking her marriage and custody of her daughter to pursue him and make him love her. The worse Teddy treats her, the riskier her behavior grows, and her discretion vanishes.

On the edges of Violet and David’s life flits David’s younger sister Sally. Sally is gorgeous and sexy, desperate to land a rich husband so she can live a life more like her brother and his wife. In fact, she is so obsessed with creating her “ideal” life that she has become unhinged; mistreating friends, lying to men, and constantly scheming ways to get more of everything she feels is owed to her. Her lies and manipulations lead to disastrous consequences, from which Violet and David are forced to rescue her.

The characters in the novel are all so desperate for a different, better, more perfect life that they begin to destroy themselves in the name of having it all. Semple’s intelligence and wit are on clear display in her writing, as is her wide-reaching knowledge of current events and her startling astute grasp of human nature…at its best and its worst. This book was outstanding; unique, sad, funny, awful, and hopeful all at once, and I could not put it down.

 

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In This Grave Hour by Jacqueline Winspear (2017)

Note: Other books in this series, and stand alone books by Winspear, can be found using the tag “Winspear” on the right hand side of this site’s main page. This post may contain spoilers for earlier books in this series.

in this grave hour

In This Grave Hour, the thirteenth installment of the fantastic Maisie Dobbs Series, opens on a somber note on September 3, 1939 at the very moment that the British government declared war on Germany and entered World War II. On that same morning, Maisie Dobbs — a “psychologist and investigator” in London — is assigned a new case: find a murderer who is targeting Belgian men who came to England as refugees during the first World War.

After years of personal turmoil, including losing her husband and baby, and working as a nurse in the Spanish Civil War, the summer of 1939 finds Maisie Dobbs returned to London and Kent: her city-based investigative business thriving and her weekend life in the country with her father and in-laws stable and contented. However, the declaration of war changes everything immediately: children removed from their city homes and relocated to the live with strangers country; London bracing for bombings; and everywhere young men enlisting, terrifying their parents who still keenly remember their loses in WWI.

Against that back-drop, Maisie follows the trail of a handful of WWI Belgian refugees who came to England as orphaned boys and stayed to build a life after Armistice, men who are now turning up dead, executed one-by-one. Together with her two assistants, the local police, a Secret Service agent, and a Belgian diplomat; Maisie begins to uncover the connection between the then boys, now men, and their murderer and the reasons for these apparently long-delayed executions.

Told in Winspear’s signature style — calm, methodical, precise, and rich with historical details — In This Grave Hour is yet another mesmerizing investigation unfolds and more hints about the future in store for Maisie Dobbs are revealed. Wonderful!

Sweetbitter by Stephanie Danler (2016)

“I imagined being interviewed ten years from now. My amicable interviewer would ask me about my origins. I would tell him that for so long I thought I would be nothing; that my loneliness had been so total that I was unable to project into the future. And that this changed when I got to the city and my present expanded and my future skipped out in front of me.” 34

Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter is an amazing, raw, gritty story about the wild and seedy underbelly of New York City’s high-end restaurant industry. The story is narrated by Tess, a small-town girl who moves to the the city with dreams for a bigger life. Tess gets a coveted job in one of the city’s most elite restaurants and so begins her education about living an urban, cultured life — wine, fine foods, drugs, drama, hierarchies, art, music, theater, “they were fluent in rich people” — all gleaned from her frantic, heady days working with the restaurant’s staff and studying its wealthy customers.

Tess’s new life is far cry from her small town upbringing: from Dunkin’ Donuts coffee to $100 glasses of wine, from high school football games to exhibit openings at The Met. In the haze of her wild new life — exhausted, high, experiencing something new every minute of every day — things are sharp and real and alive.  The vibrancy of this newness makes her simple, lonely life before New York City blur into a distant memory.

Soon Tess realizes that while the city offers her to chance to learn limitless new things, the people in it are largely emotionally distant from her. The harsh realities of the city — its indifference and rudeness infectious; its anonymity creating an environment ripe for misbehavior — have warped the people around her, making them resist her attempts to befriend them or establish meaningful, trusting connections. They no longer trust the future, she begins to see, the dreams they came to the city with have faded and her hopefulness makes them pity her.

“You’re all terrified of young people. We remind you what it is like to have ideals, faith, freedom. We remind you of the losses you have taken as you’ve grown cynical, numb, disenchanted, compromising the life you imagined.” 196

Although she has been warned against it, indeed her own instincts tell her to avoid the trouble, Tess falls for a angry, withdrawn, moody man who works with her. Not only does Jake bring his own turbulence to her life, with his lies and his unwillingness to commit to her; Jake is deeply entangled with the restaurant’s most important employee (and Tess’ idealized mentor), Simone. Together, Jake and Simone awaken her to all of the tastes, textures, and delights that life has to offer and Tess grows wild with the new knowledge. Her willingness to be mistreated, lied to, and led astray are all part of the hedonistic life she is now living…a life that, despite its draw-backs, makes her feel alive for the first time. The ultimate fallout seems inevitable, but to Tess what she gains in the moment is worth the heartbreak along the way.

Danler’s writing is so vivid that you cannot help taste, feel, and experience everything alongside Tess — each sip of wine; each oyster; each line of coke — and the city seems to come alive as Tess explores it. Although I find their stories heart-breaking at times, Danler’s characters feel undeniably real and it is easy to see the dreamers who came to New York City full of hope underneath the jaded people they have become. Undeniably, this a wonderful book.

“You will see it coming. Not you, actually, because you don’t see for yourself yet, everyone is busy seeing for you, days filled with unsolicited advice you don’t take and trite warnings you can’t hear and the whitewashing of all your excitement. Yes, they definitely saw it coming, exactly the way it came. When you’re older you will know that at some unconscious level not only did you see it coming, but you created it, in your own blind, stumbling way.” 255

Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (2011)

I spent a windy, icy Sunday afternoon re-reading Attachments by Rainbow Rowell. Upon finishing, I decided that this book is one of my favorite love stories: funny, touching, and romantic in equal measure. I dare you not to fall in love with Beth and Lincoln!

Attachments Cover

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Originally posted on May 14, 2016:

This is the fifth Rainbow Rowell book I have finished in less than two weeks. I think it is possible that I have moved from a fan of her work to a super-fan; a title I will proudly embrace. Since I have reviewed all of her books on this blog, I am giving her her own tag “Rainbow Rowell” so that other fans of her work can find all of my posts in one place. (Note: I purposely decided not to separate out her adult novels from her young adult novels since — speaking as the mother of a teenager — I believe them to be mild enough for teen audiences.)

Attachments is the story told from the point of view of Lincoln, a twenty-something man in Nebraska living in 1999, who is deeply lonely and unable to find a path to happiness. After weathering a staggering heartbreak in college, Lincoln largely closed off from socializing, choosing to focus on school and work. After finishing grad school, he moved home to live with his mother (a delightfully funny hippie) and slowly let go of the things in life that gave him happiness: friends, dating, sports…in short, fun.

It is only after taking a job at a newspaper office that has just upgraded its staff to computers that Lincoln’s life slowly starts to open up. Night after night, Lincoln comes to work well after the reporters are gone in order to read all of their email and report to the boss who is misusing their work-site internet access. Without having to build relationships with his actual colleagues, Lincoln is able to build fictional ones with them; coming to know them through their emails and web searches.

It is the close relationship between two female employees at the paper that most intrigues Lincoln and, even well past the point of propriety, he finds himself drawn to their email conversations. Lincoln comes to “know” Jennifer and Beth as funny, loving, kind women and he comes to learn of their most intimate moments: loves, losses, and heartbreaks while never once even seeing their faces. He longs to meet them, but feels trapped. Getting to know them after reading their emails for almost a year, he argues to  himself, would be starting out their friendship with a huge lie: like making money “off insider trading tips.” So he witnesses their friendship from afar and soon realizes that he is in love with Beth. And then, the magic starts!

What follows are a beautiful, if nontraditional, love story where the universe (or at least, the Internet) brings two people together who might have otherwise worked side-by-side without ever knowing one another.

Attachments is classified as a romance novel, but I feel that perhaps it is better categorized as a rom-com. Although the book is undoubtedly a love story, one of its most charming characteristics is its delightful sense of humor; and its quirky male narrator, Lincoln. In addition to being distinguished by its humor, the friendship/love story between Beth and Jennifer, which is central to the book, also lends more heartwarming appeal to what is already a unique and lovely novel.

The Blue Hour by Laura Pritchett (2017)

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“And during this time you will simply decide to tell the truth. You are thinking clearly tonight. Clear as the stars. You love the sky at this time of night. You are in the l’huere bleue of your life, the blue hour, the hour of dusk, the hour when everything changes.” 7

Laura Pritchett’s gorgeous novel, The Blue Hour, tells the story of twenty-four men, women and children living on Blue Moon Mountain in Colorado. Together they form a community that is, at times, more like a family: intricately linked to one another for better or worse, their lives on the mountain made possible by their collectivism. Blue Moon Mountain gives it residents a life that is both sides of the coin: a place of solitude but also loneliness; freedom to live independently but also utterly dependent; surrounded by nature but also at its mercy. When one of the most prominent members of the town, Sy, commits suicide, it throws the entire mountain into a tail-spin, all suddenly questioning the meaning of life and waking up to the fact that they may not be making the most of the time they have.

Despite the complex challenges the characters face in their everyday lives on the mountain, and especially in the wake of Sy’s suicide, it is love that seems to preoccupy them all. Love — the thrill of discovering it, the ache of its absence, the devastation as it evaporates, and, for the lucky, the nourishment it brings to one’s entire existence. Through her stunning prose, Pritchett brings these stories to life, giving each member of the mountain community a unique voice and a chance to tell their story: to give their very personal reflections on love or love lost or love’s absence. All of the characters seem to instinctively understand that love makes the burdens of life easier to bear.

At its first stirrings, love seems so stunning and impossible and magical. Pritchett gives us several Blue Moon residents who are in the flush of new love. These characters are alight with the possibility of love, of what it could offer them: loneliness cured, stories shared, pain eased. “The only thing grand enough for a human life is love, this is where the wild and the gentle get sewn together.” 11

Alongside those stories of new love are those of fading love: couples who have grown tired or who have stepped out and away from love, either in reality or at least in practice. The stories of endings are filled with a sense of profound frustration that these characters seem to be letting go and disengaging and denying love the chance of re-blooming. “Meanwhile, you forget how ice-thin the space between love and not-love, fondness and irritation…you realize that the most popular story on earth is falling in love, the next most popular is falling out. Love most often dies by ice not fire.” 1-2

Finally, there are the Blue Moon residents who are aching for love and feel empty without it. These men and women are all battling — to varying degrees — with loneliness, depression, and anger at how much they long for what they do not have. Ranging in age and circumstances, these characters are bereft with what is missing from their lives and with the possibility that they may go forever without ever finding someone to share it. These characters tell stories that are simultaneously familiar and terrifying, because all readers are unaware of how it feels (or can imagine how it might feel) to live without love. Pritchett gives beautiful voice to the fears of those searching for love and the desperate hope they hold, always on the look for “a moment that contains the potential for love.”

The stories in the novel also offer reflections on the myriad of ways a person can choose to approach life. Will they choose engagement or detachment? Will they coax love out of something simple? Will they offer more, rather than less, to their lover? Will they stay on the mountain to see if love grows or move away in hope of lessening the pain of love unrequited? Pritchett brings to light all of the ways a person can make a million small decisions to retract from life, and consequently, from love.

“This pain was not as bad as the pain of being alone night after night, realizing the depth of untruthfulness of that mistaken belief, and that she’d let too much time slip by, been too picky, too selfish, too lazy, too indecisive, had let herself go smoke’s way, drifting along. It seemed unbelievable. It has simply taken her too long to realize that the door of love and family wouldn’t just open, that she was supposed to bang on that particular door more loudly. She hadn’t and now it was too late.” 158

Laura Prittchett’s prose is spare and precise, but somehow it always manages to convey so very, very much to readers. Simple but never easy. Although the stories of the characters are brief, they are also extremely intense: each one delving in to the person’s most vulnerable, painful parts…but doing so with the slimmest hope that by exposing these secrets they will not lose but win, by way of welcoming someone deeper into their hearts. Although these stories are solemn, the book never becomes heartbreaking. Pritchett pulls back just enough so readers still see a glimmer of hope, even in the darkest circumstances. The stories of sadness are interspersed with gorgeous love stories and those are filled with such hope that buoy up the rest. And the beauty with which she writes these stories is just too rich and lush to contain only sadness.

This book is a masterpiece and not to be missed!

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (2015)

In this slim novel, Kent Haruf introduces us to two residents of rural Holt, Colorado: Addie and Louis. Both Addie and Louis have been widows for more than a decade; both have weathered years of grief; both are living away from their grown children; and both are desperately lonely.

Tired to spending every night alone, Addie proposes to Louis that they begin an affair: not one based on sex, but rather of companionship. Louis, a bit reluctantly, agrees and so he begins to visit Addie every night to join her in bed where they talk and offer comfort to one another.

Freed from the emotional baggage that defined their marriages, Addie and Louis share their life stories — the good and the bad — and fill the long, lonely nights that have marked the years since they were widowed with companionship.

Despite a small dust up among the other residents of their small town (some who disapprove of two older people entering into what appears to be a purely physical relationship), Louis and Addie continue to meet each night. Soon they are falling in love with one another, and they begin a full relationship with dates, trips, meals, and — eventually — sex.

Told in sparse prose, vaguely reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy, Haruf tells readers of the blossoming relationship between two people who will no longer stand for loneliness and who are determined to carve out as much time for love and happiness as they can.

 

 

After You by Jojo Moyes (2015)

Two weekends ago, exhausted from an extended holiday vacation, I spent a Sunday afternoon in bed watching movies that my husband and sons had declared –loudly! — that they wanted no part in watching, namely tear-jerker and chick-flick films.

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One of the movies I watched was the film adaptation of Jojo Moyes Me Before You. The movie follows the book very closely and was well-cast and enjoyable (if very sad) to watch. As soon as I completed the movie, I added the book’s sequel, After You, to my library hold list and read it yesterday. Below is a re-post of my review of that novel.

Enjoy!

Originally posted on November 18, 2015 +++++++++++++++++++++

SPOILER ALERT: This post may contain a few spoilers about the Jojo Moyes bestseller, Me Before You, because it would be quite hard to write about the sequel After You without talking about about its prequel.

This past Saturday I spent a lovely afternoon curled up with the new Jojo Moyes book, After You. It was a delightful read, if a bit of a tearjerker, completely worth staying up late that night to finish. This book is the sequel to her previous novel, Me Before You (2012) which was also a heartbreaking sob-fest. While this book does stand alone if you were interested in reading it without completing the first novel, the two really are a set and I strongly recommend that you read them in order.

At the opening of After You we find Louisa Clark eighteen months after the heartbreaking loss of her beloved boyfriend Will. After traveling the world for a bit, Louisa has moved to London and is living a meager existence in a dingy flat, working a dead-end job at an airport bar, drinking her nights away. She is at a complete loss for how to put her life back together. Distanced from her family and Will’s, she has cut herself off from life and is making no effort to move forward. Soon a series of shocks and surprises mean the Louisa can no longer hide behind the veil of her grief. She is forced to take control of her life, even if it means that she makes a bad choices and mistakes along the way.

Told in first person by Louisa, the story almost feels like Louisa’s diary as it catalogs the ups and downs of her life as she tries to get a handle on her grief and depression. What emerges is an honest portrayal of how one woman deals with “one step forward two steps back” aspect of loss. Readers get a front row seat to Louisa’s struggles, her confusion and constant insecurity about whether she doing anything right. More importantly, we get to see Louisa’s small triumphs as she slowly moves out from under her sadness. And it in these moments, when Louisa’s life starts to look upward, that the novel really outshines it’s predecessor. In the first book, Louisa has such a hard time of things and suffers so much — humiliation, mental distress, familial stress and (of course) guilt and grief — how wonderful to finally see Louisa vindicated! She is starting to have good things come her way and is so deserving of them.

The book is lovely and very touching. Although the subject matter is dark, there are many moments of levity and laughter as well. In its lighter moments, Louisa’s story faintly echoes Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones Diary since readers get to witness not just the darker moments of her journey but also get to laugh at her crappy boss, her bad fashion choices, and her rag-tag group of friends and loved ones.

I love all of Jojo Moyes books. Even when the topics she writes about are serious, her books still manage to be touching, as well as fresh, quirky and fun. While there are definitely tears to be shed while reading any of her work, Moyes always leaves us with a hopeful ending. Her characters may not have found love and happiness at the end of every book, but it seems likely they will find both soon. (Among my favorites of hers are: One Plus One, Ship of Brides, and The Girl You Left Behind.)

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