Monday, May 6, 2019

Two New Novels, Similar Themes

I've just finished two new novels that were on Elaine Newton's summer reading list, meaning that, if she could bring the author to town, or if she decides they are worthy, she'll cull them from over thirty choices to be on her discussion program next fall. Many of her options are on my TBR list.

"The Editor," by Stephen Rowley, and "The Dakota Winters," by Tom
Barbash are each set in the late 1980's, early 1990's, a time when you might think not all that much happened. But, lest I forget, we're dealing with a generation of wonderful new writers for whom the '80's were my '60's. Each novelist focuses on familial dynamics and how they are shaped and changed by the outside influence of a celebrity personality seeking anonymity for a while.

Rowley's book introduces James Smale, a struggling writer whose latest manuscript, a semi-autobiographical investigation into the close relationship between a mother and her son, has been optioned by a new editor at Doubleday. Imagine James' intimidation when, at his first meeting, he discovers that one of the most famous mothers of all time, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis is the editor he'll be closely working with.

Then, imagine his utter dismay when, at the annual family Thanksgiving dinner, he shares his exciting news only to have his mom stalk out of the room. For months she refuses to speak to her son about the uncomfortable fact that she is the impetus for, and the subject of, his book. A book that Jackie O. fell in love with and for which she pressures James to create a more authentic ending.

Rowley is a kind writer, creating the same realistic, sensitive characters that graced his first book "Lily and the Octopus." As James searches for a truth that seems just out of reach, his friendship with Jackie blossoms even as his union with his partner begins to suffer. Rowley beautifully humanizes Mrs. Onassis and is especially adept at reflecting the depth of gay relationships.

Similarly, Tom Barbash focuses on the push/pull, father/son dynamic of twenty-three-year old Anton, just home from a stint in the Peace Corps, and his dad Buddy Winters, a once respected television talk show host who suffered an on-air meltdown, a la Howard Beale in "Network." Now hoping to stage a comeback, Buddy exerts pressure on his son to take on management of his rebirth and find a station willing to take a bet on the man who walked away only a few years ago.

When I first spotted this title I actually thought the novel was about winters in New York City at the famed Dakota. Well, I may have been a bit off base but certainly The Dakota itself, along with its most renowned residents, John and Yoko, are central characters in this original, evocative mash-up of the fictional and the actual.

In Barbash's imagination, John Lennon is undergoing a crisis of confidence. Hiding from his adoring public he finds refuge in The Dakota and befriends Anton who promises to teach John how to sail. Something like a miracle happens on their virgin trip to Bermuda, a miracle that bodes well for Anton's forthcoming revival of his dad's career, but leaves Anton wondering what his own future happiness might look like.

I can recommend each of these books for exactly what they are, quick, easy reads that you can take to the beach or enjoy on the back porch. Still they will leave you with thoughts about families, what we tell each other and what we hold back, and how it sometimes takes an outside observer to point out what we may be too close to see.

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