Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Story of the Lost Child

Last night I finished the fourth, and according to Europa Press, the final book in the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante. I scarcely know where to begin to talk about these books that have made such an impression on me. The characters have been so much a part of my life for months now. I loved them and hated them. They soared and then fell, becoming all too human. And Italy? The country of my heart was exposed as the passion- inducing yet dangerously corrupt land that it is.

 I don't believe that I've ever read a more realistic description
of a friendship, one that spans over fifty years and involves
 so many losses, misunderstandings, great acts of love, and acts of
The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)ferocious cruelty. This is no fairytale. Readers must be prepared to examine their deepest thoughts and emotions, the ones they'd never want to share with another human being, and admit that these are a normal part of our human condition.

The ambivalent feelings that Lila and Elena hold for each other manifest themselves from grade school where their teachers pit one against the other. The girls are drawn to one another until they become two sides to the same coin. Lila seeming to be the more powerful force, Elena the wanna be.

Elena sees Lila's early marriage, a means of escaping grinding poverty, as capitulation. For Lila it's a means to an end. Elena's star rises when she leaves Naples for academia while Lila's influence in Naples' business world threatens the powerful hold that the Solara brothers have over the old neighborhood.

Elena thrives when away from Naples. She is fecund with words, publishing feminist tracts to critical acclaim, and fecund biologically, reveling in the pregnancies that produce two beautiful girls. Lila's body, on the other hand, is repelled by the sex act and is sickened by her own pregnancy.

At times I questioned Lila's magnetic pull on Elena. Why would such a smart, outspoken woman be drawn to Lila's subversive undermining of Elena's hard-won confidence. I wanted to yell out to Elena, "No! Don't return, don't let her tear you down." And though Elena questions her own motivations, she does eventually move back to Naples where the two women's symbiotic relationship becomes a destructive force, poisoning all the people they love.

These novels are absolutely Shakespearean in their depth and insight. Though much praise has been (well-deservedly) lavished on the translator, Ann Goldstein, I think that another draw is the anonymity that the author has been able to maintain over the years and through all the publicity. This mystery of authorship and the mystery of this finale force us to accept the uncertainties of life. Don't miss this tour de force.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

Some of you may be old enough to remember what might be called the first reality TV show, "This is Your Life." It was a sometimes awkward, always maudlin, tear-inducing show that chose some unsuspecting person from the audience and highlighted the ups and downs of their life so far. Often there were walk-ons from one's past, someone with whom the "star" had interacted without even realizing the effect the star had had on said person's life.

Well, for some reason, after reading a couple of reviews of Jonathan Evison's ( new novel, "This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!" I was expecting a comedy. I should have thought of the TV show earlier! While there are some laugh-worthy moments in Evison's book, they are wry laughs, not guffaws. For this is a book, as he says in his acknowledgements, dedicated to all the unfulfilled women out there who dreamed of greater things but settled for less, either because of the times in which they lived or because they were thwarted by the pressures of marriage and children.
This is Your Life, Harriest Chance!

Younger women may have trouble even relating to this story about seventy-eight-year-old Harriet but it's worth the read as a cautionary tale. We give up our dreams at our peril. Harriet has just buried her husband Bernard after an emotionally draining year and a half as his full-time caretaker. Bernard's fall to Alzheimer's disease was quick and relentless.

Harriet answers the phone one day shortly after Bernard's death to be informed that Bernard has won a cruise to Alaska. Alaska? Harriet had no idea that Bernard wanted to go to Alaska, nor was she aware that he had entered a sweepstakes. But, as Harriet always has, she defers to Bernard's judgment, deciding that if he thought they should have gone then she'll go, inviting her best friend Mildred to accompany her.

Evison toggles back and forth, in short, punchy chapters, over the seventy-eight years of Harriet's life, slowly revealing a complex picture of a woman whose self-esteem was persistently battered by a cold, uncaring mother, while her father enticed her with work in his law firm, a place that teased her into believing she could have a career in law, though it was more likely her role was simply to be sexy window dressing.

Finally free to make her own decisions, Harriet embarks on the Alaskan cruise even after Mildred reneges at the last minute, handing Harriet an explanation letter that gets shoved into her luggage along with Bernard's ashes. I found myself so hoping that this would be Harriet's chance at liberation.

Ultimately though, this novel is less uplifting and more than a little discouraging. Harriet's relationships with her son Skip and daughter Caroline have been tense and unfulfilling. Bernard, we discover, has been an absentee father even when he's been home in his chair, head buried in a newspaper. Now that he's dead he wants to redeem himself, to ask forgiveness, popping up by Harriet's side at most inopportune moments. Yes, you must suspend disbelief to read this book.

Jonathan Evison has been called wistful and wise and bighearted. He wants women like our moms, our teachers, and all the other unsung heroes who subsumed their dreams and desires so that we could fulfill ours, to know that he sees them. I'll leave it to you to decide whether or not he succeeded.

Friday, January 8, 2016

A New Year to Read Around the World

It's here! 2016. What will the literary gods bring us this year? I'll be on the inside track in May when I attend Book Expo America in Chicago. In the meantime I'll be catching up on recommendations from the past years while trying to stay in keeping with the international theme of this blog - reading books set all around the world.

Of the four books that I've already finished in the first eight days of the new year I must first talk with you about one of last year's most touted novels.
At first the cynical Sally thought that all the buzz was simply a case of insider privilege. Mr. Clegg is a well-known literary agent with a great reputation. Who knew that while he was promoting the books of others he was quietly struggling with his own work of art?
What I find most surprising about Clegg's novel is that, even though it revolves around a horrific tragedy in a small Connecticut town, it is not in the least bit a depressing read. Perhaps this is because the explosion that destroys June Reid's home, killing everyone she's ever cared for, happens immediately, before we get to know the characters for ourselves.
As a reader, I felt that the catastrophe was almost too overwhelming to get my head around, and I sensed that Mr. Clegg's intention was not to focus on the deaths but on the excruciating effect on those left behind. Most of us have suffered the protracted illness and eventual death of a person dear to us. We come to accept this as the natural progression of life. But to lose everyone in a single, meaningless moment?
As the characters slowly reveal themselves in short vignettes of interior monologue we learn of the intricate threads that tie each of them to each other. Clegg proves the John Donne truth that "no man is an island."
June's tragedy is that she has been guilty of hurting many people over the course of her life and has yet to fully reconcile with her daughter Lolly, her lover Luke, her former husband Adam, all now gone. It is this guilt and the concomitant shame that drives her away from any offers of help. She doesn't believe she deserves to live among others. Her exile to the west coast is self-imposed and is necessary if she is ever to recover enough to re-engage with the world.
"Did You Ever Have a Family" is deceptively simple, a quick, easy read, but one that left me thoughtfully pondering for days after closing the cover. Clegg, who has written about his struggles with addiction, and his break and reconciliation with his father, ("Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man")has found in this novel another way to share with readers his complex take on the dichotomy between the difficulty of, and our ultimate redemption from, human interconnectedness.