Hello, Sunshine 2

A profile in dishonesty, a character we still like (Manhattan and Montauk, Long Island; June-August present-day): Laura Dave knows something about dream jobs. Three of her five bestsellers have been optioned for movies, including her newest charmer Hello, Sunshine. So in Sunshine Mackenzie, she’s cooked up a cooking star with a dream job, dreamy husband, and daydream Tribeca loft overlooking the Hudson River. Except sometimes dreams can be too good to be true. As Sunny – and her 2.7 million Twitter followers and 1.5 million so-called “friends” on Facebook and all Dave’s fans – are about to find out when someone tweets out of her account: “I’m a fraud. #aintnosunshine.” 

People in Sunshine’s universe wanted to believe she was the real deal: a YouTube cooking sensation (#1 in the hot competition for that lucrative spot) whose “farm-to-table recipes” straight from her Georgia farm upbringing evoked a simpler, more wholesome time. Except Sunny cannot cook, and those easy, mouthwatering recipes she’s touted as her very own originated from someone else.

Got to hand it to the novel’s sunny title and bright design for demonstrating how easy it us to fool us, somewhat. While it is true it’s a breezy read, it’s also a serious statement about honesty and fairness in the digital age.

Truthfulness is a timeless, old-fashioned virtue. Dave drives home a cautionary contemporary tale. “It’s amazing, after all, what you ignore when you want something to be right, isn’t it? Like in this case the truth,” Sunny airs, now that she’s been unmasked as other than the innocent she purports to be. Maybe she didn’t intend to put out falsehoods and the downhome cooking concept wasn’t even hers at first, but one fabrication led to another until little white lies became big ones. At what point should she have said enough is enough? The game’s not cute anymore; we’ve gone too far. Makes you wonder if the inventors of the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram etc. considered the extent to which unintended consequences – ethical, moral, societal, psychological – could overshadow intended benefits? How can we fix that now?

Hello, Sunshine, like our protagonist, is disguised. On the surface, it’s a smart, fun read packed with laser-sharp one-liners – zingers that flash cynicism, anger, and resentment at betrayals and guile with standout, realistic (not all enchanted!) dialogue already scripted for the big screen. Yet underneath, it’s a condemnation of a society that’s gotten too cozy with people who have a “loose hold on the truth.”

Sunshine’s scandal kicks-off as summertime kicks in (the June Part) with this punchy, opening paragraph:

You should probably know two things up front. And the first is this: On my thirty-fifth birthday, the day I lost my career and my husband and my home in one uncompromising swoop – I woke up to one of my favorite songs playing on the radio-alarm clock. I woke up to “Moonlight Mile” …

Sunshine then proceeds to tell us about Moonlight Mile, that it’s “the most honest rock song ever recorded.” The Rolling Stones songwriter, guitarist Mick Taylor, never got the credit for it. There’s our theme: honesty or the lack thereof. Someone taking credit for something he or she didn’t earn.

Such an engaging opener you forget there’s something else Sunny wanted us to know. Which she tells us a few pages in, admitting she was not “a good person. Some would even say I was a bad person.” She can bear herself brutally because once upon a time she “used to be a very honest person.” But she’s mastered – from her producer pro, forty-year-old Ryan Landy – how-to be “charming, deceitful.” So when she unveils that second thing, she confesses to gaming us too by letting us wait a bit, a strategy for “garnering sympathy.”

How did she become, as she also admits, a “seasoned liar”? Terrific adjective since her deceptions blended in with the seasonings. Truth is when you lie about one thing and get rather good at it (she can’t get over the “ease and strength in which people lied”), turns out you lie about other things. So when you’re ruthlessly exposed, your whole world collapses like a house of cards. Not exactly a sunny June, a sunny birthday celebration!

June is also when we meet other characters who figure in Sunshine’s shattered world. One is her dreamy husband, Danny, with “stunning green eyes” and a “killer smile.” They’ve been married fourteen years, college sweethearts. He’s an architect working on a coveted project, a 5,000 square foot residence with views of Central Park. The truth about Danny is he truly loves Sunny, though you may feel otherwise as their lives fall apart.

Some around Sunshine knew truths about her, but “people only spoke up about something if it benefited them,” Sunny perceptively says. That line really hit me having just watched The Zookeeper’s Wife based on real events about a Polish couple risking their lives to rescue 300 Jews during WWII because it was morally just. A stark contrast between their profiles in courage versus Sunshine’s “faux-sympathy” orbit and today’s political climate.

July is when Sunshine faces a friendless world despite all those million “friends.” Having no place to go, she returns to Montauk, where she’s really from. Though the truth of her former life along the tip of the Hamptons is “not as showy,” it’s a long way from the farm girl image she impersonated.

Among the “dunes, beach, charm” of Montauk the real Sunshine Stephens shows up. As do a number of colorful characters from her past and beaten-down present. Here is where we learn what drove her away, and why pretending to be someone other than who she was took such hold.

Montauk, NY Lighthouse
Photo by chartersny on Flickr

These are sad times, but not everything is bad. The imagery of Montauk – Atlantic Ocean, sustainable fishing, old working lighthouse, for starters. There’s also some good people. They and this special place seem to hold the answers to the peace and healing Sunshine desperately needs.

Not so fast! Sunshine has a lot on her plate and recovery does not come overnight. August is when she works at reclaiming her former self, or perhaps a truer self. As Sunny seeks to become a good person again, we wonder if you have to lose it all to truly find yourself?

So grab this entertaining, perfectly-sized vacation read (256 pages, short-chapters), and play around with who you’d cast in the starring role of Sunshine. More food for thought.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

Cocoa Beach

Roaring passions, Roaring times (Cocoa Beach, Florida June/July 1922 and 1924 epilogue; WWI France 1917-1918): “Cocoa, Florida. It sounds so lovely, doesn’t it? Just saying the name gives you a marvelous, exotic charge, however great your troubles.” So says our lovely, marvelous, troubled protagonist – Virginia Fortescue Fitzwilliam, married two years, estranged three from Simon, her British Army surgeon husband – of the exotic, perilous, booming, rum-running southern Florida locale in Beatriz Williams’ twists-and-turns newest historical novel, Cocoa Beach.

Keep your wits about you for more than romance is at stake, and things are not what they seem to be. Even innocent, white-gloved Virginia admits she’s “an old hand at disguising.” She’s not the only one. All the characters are unreliable. Whom to trust? Believe? That’s the crux of Virginia’s problem. The reader’s lure.

Stay especially on your toes for you don’t just read a Beatriz Williams novel, you gulp it in. You inhale her distinctly delicious prose the way single-parent Virginia, with a “hole in the center of my soul,” breathes in “great lungfuls of Evelyn,” her almost three-year old daughter. Similar to how I consumed four of her earlier novels: The Hundred Summers and her Schuyler sisterly trio, The Secret Life of Violent Grant, Along the Infinite Sea, Tiny Little Thing. The danger in reading quickly is you too could become an unreliable narrator, which is why I didn’t blog about any.

This time around I vowed to read in my note-taking, blogger’s mode. Slows you down but you catch things you might otherwise gloss over because really good historical fiction doesn’t whack you over the head; it blends details cunningly, leaving you wanting more. Do a little googling and you find yourself fascinated by how clever the plot and prose integrate two historical time periods. (The prolific author attests to this challenge on her blog.)

Who knew of southern Florida’s notorious bootlegging history? Bootlegging, I discovered, differs from rum-running; the former over land, the latter over the sea. Makes remote, mangrove-sheltered Cocoa Beach a smart setting for capturing the Wild West of the Prohibition era. Heard of Carl Fisher, Father of Miami Beach? He transformed a barrier island into a major resort destination? Heady tidbits that factor in the story.

Another interesting fictional ingredient is the critical role the automobile played in Florida’s real estate fever in the early twenties, which also made possible heroic, life-saving during WWI. The first vehicle comes to life with an intrepid Virginia at twenty steering Hunka Tin – the Model-T ambulance she drove for the American Red Cross cramped beside alluring, golden-gray haired, thirty-five-year old Simon. Or, in the author’s words: “I met my husband in the least romantic setting possible: a casualty clearing station in northern France in the middle of February.”

Ford Model T Ambulance
National Museum of the U.S. Air Force

The second car is a jazzy “sky blue Twin-Six Packard Roaster,” featured in the Cocoa tale. Repainted, it might resemble this 1916 model:

 

Packard Twin Six Model 1-35 1916
By Buch-t [CC BY-SA 3.0 de], via Wikimedia Commons

Virginia learned to drive on her “grim, reclusive,” inventor Father’s Model-T when they lived in Manhattan. He is among her troubles, why she’s had “a lot of experience with “symptoms of shock” and “disguise.” Very early on, we’re told he’s on trial for a horrendous crime. As to its nature, a source of her psychic pain, you’ll discover soon enough.

The Cocoa Beach chapters begin when Virginia is twenty-five and has already lost a lot: her mother at eight; younger sister, Sophie, whom she adores, to serve her country; and Simon, whom she’s left after just two years of marriage from 1917 to 1919.

The Epilogue is a letter dated 1919, one of many Simon wrote Virginia desperate to win her back, defending himself against a “despicable crime.” What that is and whether he’s been falsely or justly accused the reader must figure out. Understandably, Virginia’s perceptions and temperament have been colored by the betrayal of the two most important men in her life. Naturally, we’re sympathetic to her plight, whereas the others we vacillate about, almost to the end.

Dating Simon’s introductory letter tips us off that the last time Virginia saw him was three years ago, in June 1922 when Virginia arrives in Cocoa Beach, opening with:

“Someone has cleared the ruins away, but you can still see a house burned to the ground here, not long ago. The earth is black and charred, and the air smells faintly of soot.”

Not long ago means only four months ago. Virginia has come to this “ruined house on the sea” to see for herself what happened on this gorgeous spot and what’s happening at 1,400 acres of the Maitland citrus plantation, a Phantom shipping company (love that name!) and the Phantom Hotel, all she’s inherited having been informed Simon perished in that blaze. That fetching roadster was his too.

Yet all through the novel Virginia feels “the cool suggestion of Simon’s presence.” Might Simon still be alive? An unrecognizable body was dragged from that inferno; all that was recognizable was his ring.

“Everything you seek is here” is another reoccurring suggestion. Not true at all. Hints are dropped along the way, but they deceive us. A game is afoot and we’re game as the prose pulls us in, pulling no punches, infused with an evocative sense of time and place and, notably, smells. Air steeped in the citrusy scents of orange blossoms; a shipper’s “dockside perfume, hemp and tar and salt and warm wood” mixed with something else “sweet and spicy” (ah, those phantom ships!); putrid odors on the battlefields; “grease and wet stone and melancholy” at the chateau Virginia was initially posted at in war-torn France; the “sleepy scent of my husband’s skin”; and poetically, the “smell of hope.”

Virginia hopes “maybe the new architecture of this house represented a change in Simon himself.” Contrary to the Captain who was sick of death and his “ancient family seat” in Cornwall, near where the couple wed. Virginia never got to meet Simon’s parents, though she briefly encountered his sister, Clara. Yes, sisters matter in this series too – this being the third installment in the author’s Prohibition series. Somehow I missed The Wicked City and A Certain Age. Note, Cocoa Beach can stand alone.

When Virginia arrives in Cocoa Beach, to her surprise she’s greeted by Simon’s strapping brother, Samuel. Same hazel eyes as Simon but from there the two couldn’t be more dissimilar. She describes him as a “straightforward man,” implying Simon is not, but, as we’ve established, none of the players are whom they seem to be. Clara, another big surprise, is also there, effusive in sisterly love and adoration for her niece. She has Simon’s sway, convincing Virginia to partake in some of the fun and sun she’s been deprived of. Clara symbolizes this energetic, decadent age “electric with life” – like the novel where everything pulses. Even the peaceful Maitland orchards and gardens, fifty miles from Cocoa, which Simon writes so passionately of, managed devotedly by Portia Bertram, present quite dramatically.

Simon’s letters are also over-the-top. Does he really love Virginia as intensely as he purports? Believe she’s the “kind of woman worth waiting for. Dying for. Living for”? He claims everything he’s done in Cocoa was for her.

Circling us right back to the novel’s biggest mystery: Did Simon die for Virginia in that deadly fire cited on page 4? Look forward to another 370 teeming pages to find that out, and more. Until then, Beatriz Williams keeps us guessing.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

Our Little Racket

Inside an outsider’s world (Greenwich CT, Manhattan and Shelter Island NY; summer before/months during the 2008 financial crisis, and aftermath): Weighing in at roughly 500 pages, The Little Racket makes a big splash, unfolding around the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression from a psychological angle. Actually five angles: five women whose provocative narratives constitute character studies. A privileged, complicated bunch ripe for book club analysis as they’ve either remade themselves or are hiding something.

Big in the sense that these women are as multi-faceted as the factors that led us to the brink of economic collapse in 2008. A financial meltdown and reshuffling that triggers their emotional volatility and instability.

A big setting – one of the richest communities in America. The “false wilderness of Greenwich” Connecticut, where you’re whisked to a black sedan-guarded mansion: the home of a very rich CEO of a “too big to fail” fictional investment bank, Weiss & Partners. Bob D’Amico is so big he’s earned (and relishes) the nickname, Silverback, which “makes him feel big.” This shadowy Wall Street world is so big and convoluted no one really understands its “intricacies and machinations” – a big part of the problem.

Big in its electrifying prose. Biting social and cultural commentary. Like the economists still trying to figure out what went wrong, these five women are not so easy to figure out. All emit a “Greenwich whisper,” but they’re not to be stereotyped as Angelica Baker’s keen prose presents them multi-dimensional and enmeshed like America’s financial system. And while her penetrating prose offers us a lot, it hints at more. Makes us stop and think about what these women are really angling for, what makes them tick. Since 99% of us have zero experience with this ultra-wealthy crowd, we’re intrigued. The novel grips in the vein of snooping inside their massive closets, out of curiosity not approval.

So it’s also a big diversion for this blog as there aren’t any characters who enchant us. Some you’ll feel sorry for, sad for, but none you’ll fall in love with.

Unless your idea of a wife (Isabel) is to be so perfectly put together you want to scream: will the real Isabel stand up, like the mantra of the TV game show, To Tell the Truth. Unless your idea of a mother is an “ice queen,” content with your fifteen-year-old daughter (Madison) feeling “like a spy in your own house.” Madison is convinced she knows more about her father than his own wife, blind ambition resembling a younger version of Ivanka Trump. Then there’s the nanny (Lily) caught between a simmering cynical dislike of the elite (she attended Columbia University on a scholarship; Ivy Leaguers all get their due throughout) and caring for her upper-crust charges. There’s also two featured girlfriends – Mina, Isabel’s and Amanda, Madison’s – thirsting to be consequential, when/if allowed.

Mostly, you’ll likely feel a range of averse or, at minimum, ambivalent emotions for this tony lot. For their detachment, grandiosity, backstabbing, recklessness, falsehoods.

Blame is a big theme. Who is to blame for the financial crisis? Fictionally, everyone wants to blame Bob. In real life, it’s not just Wall Street that bears all the brunt. What about the homeowners who took on the burden of mortgages they couldn’t afford? Risky for them, risky for the rest of us. For other causes, see:

Similarly, Isabel, Bob’s elegant, “measured” wife consumes much of the psychic blame. Just because her house is so big there’s a separate wing for her and Bob doesn’t mean she should bar Madison and her eight-year-old twins (Matteo and Luke) from entering. Isabel is far from a hugger. She prefers to wrap herself in MOMA charity events and the like, leaving the heart of a family’s gathering place, the kitchen, feeling “as huge and cold and silent as a mausoleum.” Is it Madison’s fault her parents named her after one of ritziest avenues in America? Lily’s fault she’s the nanny but when catastrophe strikes she needs her mother?

You sense the denouement at the opening: the summer before the historic crash when the D’Amicos are vacationing on New England-ish Shelter Island, a ferry ride from Greenport on the Long Island Sound, at the passed-down beach house of Isabel’s parents, not good enough for Bob’s highfaluting tastes. Another author might have opened with Bob’s bank failure. Baker lets us absorb the portending for 65 pages of exquisite prose that leaves some cunning on the surface and the rest buried for safekeeping.

Safety is the name of the game for these uppity, insecure women. “Fragile bonds” mimicking the fragility of the markets. Everything is knotted up; we watch the unraveling. An enormous price must be paid for the enormity of greed and egregious behavior that allowed the dominoes to tumble down on Wall Street, right into the laps of these characters. Fairly? Unjustly?

With all the animosity, anger, contempt, and injustice to go around not all the prose is gorgeous, intentionally. Notable is the vulgarity released from Isabel’s tightly-pursed lips, coarseness unbecoming of her old money pedigree. (The others are new money seekers.) Which is precisely the point. According to my count, three times this woman of “steel” exposes she’s not who she purports to be.

Madison’s a lot like her mother. She has her “goddess features” and is stoically self-contained. A perceptive young lady but not perceptive enough. So when the undoing confuses her, she lashes out, rebels. A cry for help. Who is listening?

Lily and Mina are. Though most of the time these two are oh so cool to each other, resenting the other, both competing for the fickle attention of this flip-flopping survivalist’s universe, where no one really knows whom to trust, or quite where they stand. That includes no one really knowing what Bob has done wrong. Plenty of resentment floats about.

Lily’s betwixt and between. Generously (and appreciatively) employed by the family for years, her redeeming quality is she’s mastered how “to decipher Isabel’s moods to see how she could help the children to navigate around them, and then to withdraw.” We’d like her more if she too didn’t keep secrets, and take advantage when things fall apart. Her name befits lily-white Greenwich. Another anomaly for this blog. A lovely setting from the outside, but inside it does not enchant.

You may like Mina the best. She agonizes over the choices she’s made for a lifestyle disingenuous to her Long Island roots. But we feel she must be partly to blame for her estranged daughter Jaime begging to go to boarding school (Andover, of course) at fourteen. Her husband Tom, a Princeton alum at Goldman Sachs (a fierce competitor of Bob’s as in these two don’t mix well), seems to be the cause of force-fitting Jaime into Greenwich Prep where she didn’t belong unlike Madison and her so-called friends. Mina is forever choosing Isabel over Tom, clueing us in on her unhappiness.

Madison’s angst is the most painful. For she’s the most victimized, the most hurt. Devastated that people “gamble away the things they always told me were so important.”

Which brings us to today. Banks are bigger than ever. Who is heeding the warnings to break them up? This isn’t just an entertaining novel, but an important one. Some pundits think we’re headed for another Depression. This tale was never about a little racket, but a great big one.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

Girl on the Leeside

An Irish Sleeping Beauty (West Coast of Ireland, present-day): This is a novel with a fairy-tale soul. Sweet and dreamy. Ancient and 19th century Irish and Celtic poetry grace its pages, as well as the hearts and minds of its three key characters, giving it a sense of timelessness, soulfulness.

The poetry memorializes Ireland’s mystical, magical beauty. Seamus Heaney exalted “lough waters.” William Butler Yeats wrote of “waters wild.” A. E. (George W. Russell) glorified “delicate dews” and a “breath of Beauty.” Yeats also wrote of a “faery” and a “beautiful mild woman”; A. E., a “long sleeping.”

Not all the poems are from the Old World. That beautiful fairy shows up as the girl in the title. Siobhan Doyle secretly composes her own poems immortalizing Ireland’s surreal beauty. She possesses a “fairy charm.” Even her watchful childhood friend, Maura (her only real friend when the tale begins), felt she “invented” Siobhan, that one day she’d disappear into her “fairy-mound.”

That’s because of her striking appearance – long dark hair reaching down to her knees – and her mysterious and unworldliness around people. Instead, Siobhan, a “poetic soul,” finds enchantment in ancient Irish poetry and the misty beauty of her pristine surroundings on the western coast of Ireland, the Connemara region. Someplace between Clifden and Galway, two miles down a coastal road outside the fictional village of Carnloe, you might find Siobhan lulled by her hallowed Lake Carnoe – or in Irish – Lough Carnloe.

The thing is Siobhan is not a girl. Though she’s quite small, she’s twenty-seven and still doesn’t know “how to stop being shy of people.” Her hulking, well-over six foot tall Uncle Kee, turning fifty, went to such lengths to protect her he “created a soul too gentle for this world.” He gave up alcohol when he suddenly became the parent of a frightened two-year old after his dear sister Maureen, Siobhan’s mother, was killed in an IRA bombing in Northern Ireland; presumably so was Siobhan’s father, a British soldier – a nod to Ireland’s anti-British history. He’d already forsaken his university dreams of studying Irish Gaelic poetry due to familial responsibilities but not his passion and knowledge, which he instilled in Siobhan.

For all he’s gone through, Kee keeps his feelings to himself whereas Siobhan doesn’t even understand hers. They both share a special bond for Irish poetry, Ireland, and the three-hundred-year old stone pub passed down six generations that Kee owns and the two run together – the Leeside.

Leeside, though isolated, is the cultural hub for this small, remote community. So it is remarkable how emotionally detached Siobhan has been despite friends and neighbors who gather here. Among them are Maura and her husband Brendon, their four-year-old daughter Triona Siobhan adores, a troublesome brother Nialle, and Maura’s father Seamus. Katie is another one of the regulars. She’s a brassy woman who raises Connemara ponies (Siobhan cherishes hers), who has had her eyes on Kee for a long time.

Connemara pony
By Olaf Kleinwegen, via Wikimedia Commons

A third devotee of Irish literature brings us to Siobhan’s sweet awakening. Jim, a professor of Irish studies from Minnesota, is on his way to visit Kee when the novel opens. Siobhan is apprehensively preparing for Jim’s visit, for her uncle has decided to re-open the pub to overnighters. That practice ceased years ago when an incident there threatened his precious girl. Jim has never been to Ireland, but Siobhan immediately picks up on his deep appreciation for Ireland’s “poetry, mythology, folklore, and history,” which stirs her delicate heart, unfamiliarly.

Jim also sees something of himself in Siobhan yet he intuits with tenderness she’s very different than any woman he’s ever known. While he tries to separate his feelings from his scholarship, the truth is he has fallen hopelessly, achingly, in love with her uniqueness instantly. Hence, the set-up in this old-fangled love story.

Jim’s romantic dilemma is how to penetrate Siobhan’s inner world without scaring her off and how to do that from afar. Could she ever leave a place she’s never traveled from, away from the waters that soothe her and the uncle she reveres?

For Siobhan’s part, she’s never been involved with a man. She has no idea if the emotions she feels around Jim and the “emptiness” that bears down on her once he’s gone have anything to do with love. Perhaps the “intense passions” in her poetry are guiding her, she muses, for she had a visceral instinct she couldn’t just say goodbye as he’s about to leave. So she guiltily concocts a lie that assures he’ll have a reason to stay in touch. Their twice daily email correspondences draw them closer, yet the lie shames her, stands between them, and she isn’t sure of his feelings since they’re not face-to-face, illuminating a condition of contemporary life, though so much else in the novel feels as though time has stood still.

A few more examples to make the case for the aura of yesteryear. A Prologue set in the 20th century conveys a “mystical bond between women.” The importance of female friendships being a “wellspring for each other” is a poignant theme of sharing and caring that plays through.

There’s also a nomadic caravan family that stops by the pub every September to sell their wares, including the warmest and loveliest sweaters that pay tribute to Ireland’s sheep farming history. Siobhan looks forward to seeing the merry band of travelers, especially Gwen; also her son Turf (great name given the love of the land), his wife JoJo and their children. They’re gypsies: “members of an ancient clan, ragged nobles of the road, the last strands of a vanishing way of life.”

Travellers’ Decorated Caravan
By National Library of Ireland on The Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

The concept and spirit of traveling is also expressed in the backstory of Siobhan’s mother, a restless soul; by Siobhan who is calmed by sheltering in place; and through all the armchair travelers who see the world via literature, including poetry.

It’s summertime, so we too are dreaming of traveling. Whether you’re making plans to travel from home or stay put and let fiction transport, Girl on the Leeside offers peacefulness. Peaceful like our world is not. Your trip will take you to an unhurried place of sheer natural beauty. A kinder, quieter world where life is more basic. That’s not to say these people aren’t hardworking, but they have time to count their blessings. Girl on the Leeside gently reminds us of that.

So while you’re reading, imagine yourself as Siobhan gazing into the “pearl gray” waters of her lough. Imagine glimpsing the dramatic Aran Islands a short distance away, and knowing you’re among friends who extend a “perpetual welcome.” Imagine an “untamed valley of rough beauty,” with its verdant “folds of hills and cozy knolls,” a landscape so beckoning it seems a fantasy. Then wonder like Siobhan: “How does a person really know where they are meant to be?”

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

All The Rivers

Is love enough? An Israeli and Palestinian love story (seven months in New York City after 9/11, mostly): Thanks to Jessica Cohen’s beautiful translation of Israeli writer Dorit Rabinyan’s All the Rivers, this breathtaking novel is now ours to read. If the passionate prose soars in English, what does it sound like in the deep and resonant intonations of Hebrew?

I ask because this is a novel of passion about an all-consuming love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man converging at a time and place that’s a perfect storm: New York City in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

In fact, everything about this novel feels immediate. From the moment Liat, 29, met Hilmi, 27, at a Greenwich Village café she “felt an immediate intimacy” as though she’d known him for “a thousand years.” He felt that connection too; within three hours he was tenderly calling her Bazi, “sweet pea.” And she immediately grasped he’d be a once-in-a-lifetime love that couldn’t possibly last. An impossible love, a forbidden love, so fraught with complications, fears, and realities it threatened her identity, heritage, family at its core.

This magnetic “push and pull” romantic drama is marked by deeply conflicting emotions and the urgency of time. Liat is a visiting Fulbright scholar getting her master’s in Hebrew translation at Tel Aviv University, due home in seven months to fulfill teaching commitments. Her scholarly pursuits fit her conservatism, and highlight the importance of translation as a career. Rabinyan and Cohen’s gorgeous literary collaboration case in point.

Hilmi is the opposite. With his hair a “sea of frizzy charcoal curls,” in contrast to her tight ponytail, his image befits his artistry and idealism. He’s been in the city for four years on an artist’s visa, teaching Arabic and working on a “dreaming-boy” project: a series of forty autobiographical drawings consuming his Brooklyn bedroom walls and floating from the ceilings like Chagall’s “floating lovers.” Awesome, vivid, dreamy echoing their love and the prose.

How bitterly ironic Hilmi’s home is just forty miles from Liat’s, yet worlds apart. His large, loving family lives in the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel, one of the controversial settlements in the West Bank.

Is it any wonder, then, that the seven months Liat and Hilmi spend together are “mad and beautiful days?” The intensity and ephemerality of a love that “stunned and excited” all the time is conveyed in long, flowing, heartfelt prose. Paragraphs consume pages, structured in brief chapters, as if the author knows she must let the reader keep coming up for air:

“…moments when I can feel he understands me, that he can make his way in and out of my mind’s twists and turns, that I can look at his wise eyes and see the wheels of his mind spinning in perfect harmony with my thoughts. The ease, the satisfaction, the comfort that fills me in those moments. The curiosity and delight of pondering these things together. In those moments when we talk and talk and talk, I feel like I have been a sort of enigma to myself, a difficult riddle to solve, he has come along to know me and to answer all my questions … I feel I am almost becoming him, so close to him and infused with him that I can practically feel what it is like to be him.”

The novel stuns and excites in the way imagery and metaphors intensify emotions and themes. That might account for Rabinyan receiving the 2015 Bernstein Prize for Israeli writers under fifty (the 2014 novel was originally published in English as Borderlife), and that it was also banned from Israeli classrooms. Utterly adult, intimate, so we can see why young adults would also be drawn to it. So many complex questions, so few answers.

Lest the novel’s anxious time period of heightened suspicions does not fully register, it jolts by opening with the FBI knocking on Liat’s door in the Village (she’s apartment sitting for Israeli friends) a mere hours before meeting Hilmi. Someone spotted this olive-skinned, “Middle Eastern looking” woman, contacted the authorities.

If that terrific reality is not stormy enough a backdrop for the couple’s emotional storm, the author ups the ante by wrapping their love in a wicked winter, one of the worst on record (actually 2002 was one of the warmest). The symbolic fierceness of the weather pummels throughout: At first, the freezing weather huddles the lovers as if it’s just the two of them against the world. New York City beckons and they explore its neighborhoods, a treat for all who know and love the city. As their days become numbered and the limits of their relationship are tested, wintertime slides “gloomy and foggy like a film noir,” then so freezing “cold that it shocks your entire being and makes it lose hope.” As the couple’s heated arguments are triggered over politics, the weather ices like people’s prejudices.

The power of art is added to this tumultuous mix. Love has inspired a “golden time” for Hilmi’s creativity. An outpouring that possesses, exhausts, makes him weep.

As the conflict between their homelands erupts – the Iraq War – we feel like weeping too. For this is a novel about many kinds of passionate love, including love of country.

Do you believe in happy endings? Hilmi, the dreamer, does; Liat, the pragmatist does not. Hilmi believes peace will come; Liat, enraged, views his wishful thinking as “binational fantasies.” She’s surprised how alarmingly deep-seated her outlook is, more aligned with the right-wing posture of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As I was puzzling over Liat and Hilmi’s divergent political ideologies, not even sure if Netanyahu supports a two-state solution, The Washington Post published an excellent, lengthy piece laying out how problematic swapping land for peace has devolved, how enmeshed Israeli society is in the occupied territories.

While this is first and foremost a novel about an intense romance racing against a loud ticking clock, the burning question as to whether peace can ever be achieved in the Middle East hits us in a new light. It’s striking how improbable it seems for love and politics to be separated, no matter how profound that love. As much as we hope love overcomes, equally it feels hopeless.

Of course that’s the heart-tugging question that burns here. Will love be enough?

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

The Whole Way Home

Triangular Love, Home, and Country Music (Nashville, present-day): The Whole Way Home sings like real country music. “A living heart in a song.” A “dance despite the heartaches.”

“Good country music” – in the straight-talking words of Floyd Masters, Sarah Creech’s old-time country music legend turned radio sage who graces our airwaves from Vanderbilt’s station, 87.3 FM – “should make you feel something, should cover the entire territory of the heart.” Creech’s second novel surely does with prose that’s strong, tender, achy, spirited, sorrowful, angry, wary, honest.

Are you one of the two million fans of the country music TV show Nashville longing to relive the romantic chemistries and musicality between three country music stars before they killed off the female character centering them? Well, dazzling indie singer/songwriter Rayna Jaymes – that “rebel woman,” that “good-values kind of woman” – is back as Jo Lover! As magnetic and torn between “two different kinds of love” as Rayna was.

This time around Nashville’s Deacon Claybourne, the fiery guitar-strumming character wrapped up in Rayna’s history, returns as J. D. Gunn, Jo’s Appalachian childhood soulmate who, along with his band brothers the Empty Shells, is now a “multiplatinum-selling country music megastar;” and Luke Wheeler, Rayna’s calmer, more conservative heartthrob is now Nick Sullivan. Privileged, yet he earned his reputation as the “most sought after producer in Nashville, maybe in the entire music industry – he could play bass, guitar, pedal steel, accordion, harp, mandolin, piano, percussion, horns.”

J. D. is from Jo’s past: she hasn’t seen him in five years. Nick is her future. Until things change, in Chapter 1, The Wrong Chord.

That’s when country music’s latest inductee into the Grand Old Opry – Jo – walks onto the stage of the “mother church of country music,” the Ryman Auditorium, and becomes so unnerved seeing J. D. she misses an easy chord. Noticeable to anyone who knows the music.

Picture the set-up: Imagine Jo as a “young Emmylou Harris” (long black hair, tall, slender), strutting her signature red Ariat cowgirl boots, singing in her “trembling, lilting, Southern-accented voice.” She’s thirty-two, from a small mountain town in fictional Gatesville, Virginia, where “mountains and music make memories.” Her female fans – the ones she writes for – are screaming for her “mountain-girl style,” for the sweet sounds of her fiddle and mandolin, for her healing music.

1916 Gibson F-4 Mandolin
By Anita Ritenour (Flickr: Gibson Mandolin) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hear Jo’s down-home Appalachian twang as she rouses the crowd: “Always been a lot of guessing about who I write my songs about,” she eggs them on. “But I think what really matters is heartbreak. Anyone ever experienced one of those?”

Observe she’s not a folksy Jo when she steps onto that historic stage all made-up in her hot dress and even hotter seven-carat, Assher-cut diamond. She’s engaged to three-time Grammy winner Nick, whose father owns Asphalt Records, the indie label that’s nurtured her.

Look whose sitting in that wild-for-Jo audience! Jo didn’t expect to see him, but you can’t miss his Elvis-looks: black wavy hair and “blue eyes lit up with innocent joy like paper lanterns.” Their estrangement seems to be about Jo feeling he’s sold-out to a corporate label. Once poor as “pickup sticks,” but she hasn’t forgotten what “her mama always said … don’t get above your raising.” That musical mistake is the first sign something is still there between them. If only J. D. could get her to smile at him, “that look that always did him in like the full moon over the mountaintop.” But Jo loves Nick, he’s good for her; she wants no part of J. D. Right?

Romantic tension skips through the pages. Jo’s country music men deeply love her in their own ways, which is why the novel sings. It’s not until you’re halfway through that Jo and J.D.’s backstory becomes acutely clear; it’s not until the novel’s end that the romantic triangle reshapes to two.

Like Rayna and Deacon, Jo and J. D. have a past they can’t seem to get over. But Nick’s a really decent guy, lower-key, gracious, and he offers her a love that’s purer and safer. Like Rayna and Luke, Jo and Nick are to be married on his magnificent estate (in eyeshot of J. D.’s) in an over-the-top wedding scheduled around their tour dates.

Whomever you’re rooting for, whoever wins Jo’s uncertain heart, with the TV visuals and sounds running through your head, the whole reading experience is even more immersive and satisfying.

Connie and Deacon at the Bluebird Café

The plot does bubble with some “thinking like a businessman” bumping up against “thinking with his heart.” How else could this be a candid look inside the country music industry from the standpoint of the singer/songwriter/musician as well as the business executive’s?

The authentic thread continues with storylines about up-and-coming young talent like the Flyby Boys band, amplifying what it’s like to get noticed, picked up, make it in Nashville. It feels like the whole gamut: from the local “dive bar circuits” such as the imaginary Thirsty Baboon, to yearning for a gig at the legendary Bluebird Café where dreams can come true, to the heavy drinking and lusting on tour, to hearing your songs on the radio, to going viral, to the make-or-break publicity in Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, American Songwriter, the tabloids, paparazzi, to 360 contracts, to the “post-Napster world” of digital streaming. The author’s research hums like she’s from this world.

The Whole Way Home also pays tribute to country music greats, names we all know and some we may not: Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Reba McEntire, Gillian Welch, Alison Kraus, Kitty Wells, Bessie Smith, Phil Dolby, Ernest Tubb, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Deford-Bailey, Charly Pride.

Don’t be fooled by the list of female artists or the sole black virtuoso who made it big. The author also doesn’t shy away from the industry’s prejudices. It’s far more profound than “country music was still a man’s world,” that it still sees women as “one-dimensional.” It doesn’t embrace a whole lot of diversity.

Racially, discrimination is illuminated in the stories of two black artists. The one that affects the plot the most involves Alan, a member of J. D’s band, who works at the Black Country Music Association, founded to address the inequities. He hails from the Bahamas but his “songs felt so true to country.” Creech invents contract deals to bring home the shame of racism, yet she imbues a moral conscience in her writing and has a poet’s way of easing the pain.

One of my favorite evocative lines recalls memories of Home, a major theme. Jo, as we’ve established, has ambivalent feelings about J. D. In one poignant scene, she:

“felt time fold in like an accordion. J. D. smelled like red clay earth, like composing leaves on the floor, like the honeysuckle vines and Confederate jasmine blooming in June, like wild roses growing on the side of the road and fresh honey from the hive and barn straw and his daddy’s cow pasture after a spring rain, like the metallic air before the storm. He smelled like home.”

Another moving scene takes place on stage, when Jo and J. D. are pressured to play together for the good of the record label. They choose an old song they wrote and sang a long time ago called “Glass Hearts.” It’s a beautiful title, one that epitomizes the novel. “Great songs don’t lose their power with age.” Neither should The Whole Way Home.

Lorraine

PS Could the novel’s release be timed any better? Tonight at 9PM on the cable channel CMT, Nashville returns with some new characters. Will they be as good as Creech’s?

Leave a Comment

’Round Midnight

Connecting four female characters to one unique place over sixty years (Las Vegas, 1957–present): You know a novelist has created compelling characters whose stories you care about when you close the last page with tears in your eyes.

’Round Midnight is a heartfelt novel deftly tied to a strong sense of time and place. The emotional highs and lows of the lives of four very different women over a span of sixty years cleverly parallel the booms and busts of Las Vegas by Las Vegas author Laura McBride, her second novel set here.

Write what you know is lyrically on display as Vegas looms as large as the characters. Like them, it bears secrets, good times and bad, fortunes and mistakes – “pain and glory.”

“Vegas wasn’t for the weak and it wasn’t for the cowardly,” McBride tells us. So you’d rightly expect her women aren’t cowards. Take June, for example. Her chapter, the first, opens with the grabbing line: “To celebrate victory in Europe, June Stein dove headfirst off the Haverstraw Bridge.”

That’s just one of many literary hooks that keeps us turning pages. Actually, by the time you’ve read the back cover you’re already hooked by McBride’s summing up her four women with catchy phrases that make us curious about them, and how they interconnect, collide. For they must, we assume, as this is not a short story collection, rather a novel with a lot going on above and beneath the surface. So we start off with June cast as “The One Who Falls in Love;” Honorata “The One Who Gets Lucky;” Coral “The One Who Keeps Hoping;” and Engracia “The One Whose Heart is Broken.”

Next come the hooks beautifully composed in tantalizing Prologues, with an alluring clue or tidbit planted. If you read too fast, you might miss these. In June’s case, it’s the mentioning of a “fateful night.” Honorata’s overture follows, misleading us with a tip that she won over a million dollars at a Megabucks slot machine so we think her life will be charmed but take notice for she also “could almost smell the sadness in the place.” All the money in the world can’t make up for what she endures.

On the surface, a nightclub is the nexus to all four women. Each of their chapters opens there, at different time periods. Their kinship, though, is more profound, which is why the novel is so arresting.

’Round Midnight opens in the late fifties in The Midnight Room; it’s a presence until 2010 when renamed the Midnight Café, a nod to Vegas’ severe economic downturn. Attached to a casino/hotel owned by June (and her husband Del) that’s fictional, yet McBride’s Vegas is inspired by history. Since June is introduced first, we follow her the longest, from her late twenties to her eighties. With its “pin-up feel,” the El Capitan was never one of the newer, flashier hotels on the Strip but when Del bought and remodeled it and June had the vision for its success, gambling wasn’t the only game in town. Entertainment was.

It was June’s idea, a gutsy move, to hire Eddie Knox, an exotic black singer fresh from Alabama. He’s a prime illustration of how the real Vegas is woven into the characters’ stories. Vegas was known as the “Mississippi of the West,” a hotbed of racism until 1961 when the casinos and hotels became fully integrated. Big name black entertainers like Nat King Cole, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr. and others may have performed there back then but that’s about all they could do alongside whites. The “Moulin Rouge pact” is mentioned: the only casino/hotel integrated at the time June sought Eddie out. We like all of McBride’s women. June, a white Jewish girl from New Jersey, warms our heart with her lack of prejudice.

June symbolizes so many “young and old, wanting to start a new life” in Vegas. She not only sensed “Las Vegas as the future,” but that “casinos were all about people and how many hours you could keep them in your joint.” So she, Del, and later their son Marshall, all enjoy business prosperity, but there’s an undercurrent of emotional unraveling that pervades.

Coral, a black music teacher, is the character native to Vegas, although we meet her after she’s come back home from California to live with her sweet Mama Augusta after her marriage ended in divorce. By then, her father had died and her siblings were gone. Back in her childhood home, she’s flooded with memories as early as seven when she’s first asked about her “caramel” skin and overhears something whispered at home. In scenes of togetherness over the years, we see a wonderfully loving family but Coral’s uncertainty about where she comes from poignantly shows us how deeply ingrained and deeply felt our identity is.

Honorata is Filipino. She makes her way to Vegas as a mail-order bride to a repulsive Jimbo. Launching her character in 1992 is a keen choice of timeframe as the Philippines enacted a law in the 1990s against this practice. Presumably, illegal schemes persisted. Since her uncle made the arrangements, her story begins with betrayal, and worsens.

Engracia is Hispanic, an illegal immigrant from Mexico. She’s the mother of a ten-year-old son, “perfect” Diego; her husband Juan is in jail back home. She’s a waitress and a housekeeper in her twenties, but her actions manifest as someone much older.

As it turns out, Engracia’s heart is not the only one broken. All McBride’s women experience heartbreak, for different reasons. And yet, the novel also sends the message that “joy was possible even if there was also a great deal of pain.” Yes, there’s the love and pain of marriage or the longing to be. But it’s the joys and heartache of motherhood – being a mother, doing whatever it takes to protect your child, the bond between mother and child, yearning for your mother – that transcends. The commonality of the women’s emotions, and how the choices they made in a fleeting moment had such lasting consequences is what makes this novel rise above.

Las Vegas was, and is, one of the fasting growing cities in the U.S. While we can watch videos of vintage versus contemporary Vegas and, of course, visit its attractions, if you want an authentic feel for Vegas through the decades, ’Round Midnight gives us that and more.

Las Vegas then

Las Vegas now

Drive outside of Vegas and you can still find the “barren earth,” the “rock and hill and sky,” and a “million mysterious stars above” that Coral is nostalgic for. But the mysteries evoked in McBride’s Vegas aren’t earthly, they’re man-made. Each of her women harbor mysteries. The one that may affect you the most isn’t even resolved until the final page. Still, the greatest mystery, the elusive one, is how an author can weave a tale that makes us cry.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

Lilac Girls

Unspeakable Horrors, Unsung Heroism – WWII history you might not know (Manhattan & Connecticut; Lublin, Poland; Fürstenberg, Germany; Paris, France, 1939-1959): “It’s not so much you should remember the name. We should be living every day with the standard he set,” says The Washington Post’s Geoff Edgers about “the greatest reporter of our time,” David Halberstam, unknown or forgotten these days. I cite this because Lilac Girls was inspired by a real life WWII humanitarian most of us probably never heard of. Thanks to Martha Hall Kelly’s ten-year effort to bring Caroline Woolsey Ferriday to life, the standard she set – her philanthropic legacy, compassion, doggedness, and resourcefulness – is now out there to inspire.

Chances are you might also not know about the plight of over 200,000 dislocated children in France cared for in mansions converted to orphanages; what went on inside the Ravensbrück concentration camp – the only camp solely for women, intended for 7,000 but rose to 45,000 “living skeletons” by 1945 – far less infamous but equally sickening; and that of the six million Poles who perished during the Holocaust, three million were non-Jewish.

Which makes Lilac Girls a remarkable novel among a bumper crop of remarkable Holocaust novels capturing us of late. A novel of stark contrasts: A heartwarming do-gooder’s story of tremendous generosity, advocacy, and benevolence to aid and comfort WWII orphans and Ravensbrück survivors pitted against monstrous, cold-bloodedness perpetrated by Hitler and his evil followers. It’s a testament to the author’s rendering that we come away celebrating humanity at its most exceptional rather than have our spirits broken.

One reason the novel is so compelling is that all the important characters are based on real historical figures. It’s unusual for so many novelistic characters to come from history. In the hands of this skilled writer, these characters engage us so authentically they come alive, palpably. In so doing, they convincingly make their stories even more unbelievable.

Contributing to this is the author’s tight, revealing dialogue. Though her debut novel, Kelly’s clearly brought her top-notch advertising copywriting skills with her penning dialogue that’s engaging, cinematic, and spot-on in imparting the personalities, beliefs, and prejudices of three females – all drawn from history – our narrators.

Since this is fiction, we can’t be sure everything we read about them is 100% true but it doesn’t matter. Kelly’s extensive research (take a look at her fascinating, detailed website after you’ve read the novel) and talent enables us to step into the shoes of these three women, giving us three perspectives to examine the war and a realistic sense of what it might been like to live through an insane era we’ll never really be able to grasp entirely. Who could?

Contrary to today, back then everyone knew someone affected by the war. If you’ve ever wondered why your grandparents or parents never spoke of the horrors, Lilac Girls answers why. Would we have found the super-human strength and courage to endure the torture in the camp like the survivors did? How would we have gone on afterwards? Would we have sustained Caroline’s “positivity” selflessly for twenty years in spite of personal losses and longings? Are these ponderings why we can’t get enough of Holocaust novels?

The three female narrators who help us to understand are:

Caroline Ferriday: A former actress whose New York high-society “set” mingled with the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys yet she’s not the stereotype of her uppity, self-indulgent friends. Rather, a delightful carbon copy of her endearing mother, who latches onto “charitable opportunities in the way some eyed a plate of pastries.” Both are Francophiles (her mother owned an apartment in Paris; also a summer house in Bethlehem, Connecticut, now an historic landmark you can visit like the author did), so her mother’s connections got her a meaningful position (volunteer) at the French Consulate assisting French families in the U.S. and orphans in France. The moment war breaks out in 1939 when Hitler invades Poland which happens in Chapter 1 (chapters superbly chronicle the enormity of Hitler’s aggressions), Caroline jumps in to assuage the chaos on both sides of the Atlantic. As war deepens, so does Caroline’s involvement.

At thirty-seven, when we meet her, she’s the only one of the three who brings us some respite – a romance – with delicious prose like her opening line: “If I’d known I was about to meet the man who’d shatter me like bone china on terra cotta, I would have slept in.” She charms us, certainly not what we’re expecting! We’re grateful for this balance in a novel of this magnitude. Her love affair with Paul Rodierre, an “achingly beautiful” married French actor with a “Cheshire Cat smile” is, in keeping with the novel’s authenticity, based on a true relationship; only the man is fictitious. The early stages of their playful liaison enable flirty, sharp-witted, self-deprecating humor, but once war explodes the lighter-heartedness darkens as Paul feels compelled to return to France to find his estranged wife, Rena, whose father is Jewish.

Kasia Kuzmerick: Inspired by the real Nina Ivanska, from Lublin, Poland. At sixteen, she joins the resistance movement. Kasia will change the way you think of organizations like the Girl Scouts. We meet her when “Poland no longer exists as a country.” These brave teenagers played a significant role in Poland’s active underground. We learn a great deal about the victimization of Polish women during the Nazi regime through Kasia and her best friend Nadia (whose grandfather was Jewish); Matka, her mother (a former nurse and artist); and her sister, Zuzanna, inspired by Nina’s real sister, Krystyna (also a nurse). That’s because all end up at Ravensbrück.

Ravensbrück Concentration Camp
Photo by ho visto nina volare from Italy (ravensbruck, il lager delle donne)
[CC BY-SA 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons

(After Hitler, the Soviets oppressed the Poles until 1989. Lilac Girls brings your closer to this country’s repression more than I’d ever appreciated.)

Dr. Herta Oberheüser: While far fewer pages are consumed by one of the only female doctors at Ravensbrück, her psychopathology up-close is still mightily hideous and heinous. A fervent German nationalist who craved respect and power in a society that treated women as inferior to men, she applied for a position as a medical doctor at the concentration camp under the guise it was a women’s “reeducation camp” for prisoners. Though she had good reason to escape her home in Düsseldorf, Germany, needed the money, and a former classmate, Fritz Fischer, worked there, she disgusts us regardless. Early on, when it was obvious what “not for the squeamish” really meant, she could have left. Instead, she not only willingly participated in the cruelty to the bitter end, but was proud to earn the War Merit Cross, a distinction she shares with Adolph Eichmann and Albert Speer.

Lilac Girls abounds with strikingly contrary images. For instance, Ravensbrück was built in Fürstenberg, a resort town described as “a scene from a Black Forest box.” Yet inside: a “special kind of terror we would grow used to.” Herta sees the camp as a “place of superior value.” She says: “how nice to see immature linden trees, the hallowed “tree of lovers” in German folklore, planted at regular intervals along the road.” When in fact that farcically named Beauty Road was satanic. The absurdity of calling notices mailed to families whose loved ones were wiped out at the camp “comfort cards” versus the “comfort boxes” Caroline painstakingly and lovingly pieced together (from former, exquisite costumes she saved) and went to great lengths to send to the orphans is repulsive. What to say of the guards enjoying music amidst barbed wire buzzing?

So you might be thinking: How could Lilac Girls possibly lift us up with all the chilling ugliness? Kelly wisely lets the lives of these three women play out after the war. That answer comes in the unfolding and the ending, when the title becomes clear. The contrasts are stunning.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

The Women in the Castle 2

German complicity in Nazi Germany and the German Resistance Movement (1938 to 1950, also pre-WWII & 1991 in flashbacks and endings; mostly German towns): Entire fields in philosophy and psychology are devoted to the complex study of morality. In The Women in the Castle, Jessica Shattuck is laser-focused on the moral legacy of ordinary German citizens who were complicit in one way or another as Hitler’s Nazi regime committed atrocities against humanity. Moral questions leap out from practically every page.

That’s because this is a profoundly personal novel. Shattuck is of German ancestry and her beloved grandmother (who lived until almost 100) was a member of the Nazi party. Reckoning with that agonizing incongruity makes for a most unusual, penetrating, and timely WWII novel that begs for an overarching moral code in national political discourse and conduct.

What does it mean to say someone has a moral compass? Can immoral behavior be justified to survive? Or, is there “a right and a wrong in every situation”? What if you only “half-knew” something was horrific? What if you were unobservant or too self-involved or allowed yourself to be deceived? How far should accountability go if you participated in one of the many ideological and militaristic child-molding programs of Hitler’s Youth Movement like the types characters in the novel did – older boys groups (Jugend), older girls groups (BDM), rural youth camps (“children-to-the-land-programs”) – even if you entered unaware? What about the stigma of having been reared in a “Children’s Home” for Germanisation? The abuse and scarring of children burns throughout.

Tackling these moral questions is a minefield. Not everything is black or white and nothing is easy to swallow. It’s not meant to be. Questions that have gnawed at Shattuck for it appears at least twenty years when she first interviewed her grandmother at her farm in Germany; and imaginably with much angst during the seven years she researched (extensively) and wrote this chilling novel (her third.) Questions weighing on the author for what must feel like a lifetime. Questions that should weigh on us too. These are dark times.

So it follows then that the prose feels like the author poured herself into the novel. Many sentences flow in a manner of deep absorption like the concentration Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes in his theory on the science of mental flow, examined more pointedly as it pertains to the writing process in Writing in Flow. As such, Shattuck’s prose is as clear and as dogged and take-charge as the novel’s moral conscience, conceived in a character of “unflappable strength”: Marianne von Lingelfels.

On the night of the Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass, when 30,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps), thirty-one-year-old Marianne is preparing for a harvest party at a forsaken Bavarian castle. The fortress belongs to a countess, the great aunt of her husband Albrecht, a diplomat in the Foreign Office. The countess is Marianne’s role model for she’s a broad-minded intellect, outspoken even today from her wheelchair. Which is why Marianne has taken on the herculean task of divining an “anarchic, un-German atmosphere” in a country immersed in a “wave of rigid and peevish militancy.” The first of many daunting challenges rock-solid Marianne pulls off.

It’s at this fateful party that the infamous July 20th 1944 assassination plot against Hitler was hatched. Among the guests in on the conspiracy are Marianne’s cherished childhood friend, Connie Fledermann. Handsome, charismatic, impulsive, and a “passionate champion of what he felt was right,” the opposite of Marianne’s cooler, more deliberative husband. She might even have married Connie if she were a softer, lighthearted, prettier, sexier version of herself, feelings apparent when he introduces her to nineteen-year-old, beautiful Benita he plans to marry. Marianne is her opposite: “stern-faced,” could care less about how she looks and dresses, well-educated, and politically-minded. She and Connie see eye-to-eye on important things: Germany has become a “savage land.”

In history’s real assassination attempt, the resisters included Claus von Stauffenberg and Ludwig Beck (both mentioned), and others. In Shattuck’s rendering Connie is one of those others. Albrecht was in on the conversations but he had mixed feelings, believing justice would prevail.

“There are thinkers and there are actors,” Albrecht says. Albrecht’s the thinker, Connie’s the doer, and Marianne is both. Her character is ideal for carrying out the novel’s plot: a promise she made to Connie at the party that she’d “be the commander of wives and children” should the co-conspirators’ scheme go awry, which, tragically, we know it did. This all happens in the Prologue.

The reader, then, is prepared for Part I when it opens. Not only are Connie and Albrecht dead but “Germany itself was dead, and half of the people at the party were either killed, destroyed by shame, or somewhere between the two.” Marianne is left a widow with three children (Elisabeth, Katrina, Fritz) holing up in a few rooms of the antiquated castle she’s now inherited, protected due to her aristocratic status and the fact that the castle, located in Ehrenheim, sits within the American Occupation Zone. She is, though, surrounded by a town of fervent Nazis and later the Russians come.

Occupation Zones, 1945
By glglgl [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0]
via Wikimedia Commons

Marianne’s life is now consumed by her moral pledge, both in the immediate aftermath of WWII rescuing and protecting widows and children of resisters and in later years for the cause of displaced persons. She and two women she rescues make-up the women in the castle.

The most emotional salvation is, understandably, Connie’s Benita and Martin, the son she was pregnant with when Marianne met her at the party. Benita is the spitting image of Nazi Aryan racial adoration but when Marianne liberates her she’s a shell of her former alluring, flirtatious self. Martin, the first she extricates, is also traumatized. The other emancipated widow Marianne knows even less about, the wife of the man who announced Kristallnacht at the party. Ania is “unreadable” until the latter portion of the novel when her hard backstory comes to life. Her two boys, Wolfgang and Anselm, are like her: “silent and knowing.” Everyone bears unspoken, harrowing pasts. Had Marianne known of these, perhaps her relationships and actions would have turned out differently. As the novel moves back and forth in time, place, and character we see how stark class differences and circumstances influenced who these people were when they came together at the castle. Not meant to excuse, but to help understand.

Shattuck explains how her three women are connected:

“Connected not through allegiance to any group or party or particular way of thinking but through the reality of the moment, through their shared will to get through the next hours, the next day, and the one afterward, and through their shared determination to keep their children safe.”

Despite the novel’s soberness, two uplifting scenes stood out. One takes place on Christmas day when the castle folk and townsfolk attend mass. The priest’s sermon falls hollow on battered souls. But music, Beethoven’s 9th, has the power to stir; Marianne is wondrous at how such a delicate instrument like the violin was salvaged amongst all the ugliness. In those ephemeral moments, the churchgoers felt “invited to be a small piece of eternity.” This is not about forgiveness, but the preciousness of all human life.

The other scene involves a willow tree, a leftover from a time when the ground in Dortmund (the town Ania’s from) was marshy. The weeping willow tree – “it’s bent, grief-stricken shape is a product of its longing” – serves as a metaphor for the horrors of the Holocaust. It endures yet it weeps.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment

No One Is Coming to Save Us

The Psychology of Poor (Piedmont region of North Carolina; contemporary): How’s this for a shocking statistic. In just eleven years (2001-2012), some 63,000 manufacturing plants vanished from America’s towns. Ordinary livelihoods and identities attached to them also shuttered. For the “ordinary poor” in the poorest of towns where “not much happens here except the same, same” these causalities are a deathblow. No One Is Coming To Save Us – even the lyrical title tugs at us – takes us inside the psyche and broken hearts of black characters hard-hit in one of these communities.

Pinetown is located in the Piedmont region of North Carolina, not far from the lovely Blue Ridge Mountains, but not much feels lovely there today. Although “people didn’t experience joy” in the olden days, at least they experienced “the immediacy of the life they were living” and were “young enough to believe in happy endings.”

Stephanie Powell Watts, award-winning professor of African American literature at Lehigh University, writes wonderfully long, winding, rhythmic sentences that often fill up one paragraph on the page, sentences that swing to and fro meshing past and present together, creating a dream-like narrative with a sense of entanglement. In fact, Pinetown characters are tangled up in a maze perilously searching for a way out. If only they’d chosen a different path, things might be different they think.

Beyond its searing literary value, Watts’ novel is a sociological and psychological study of what that blow means to black characters who’ve lived their entire lives in this town and don’t have much else, if anything, to fall back on. This is the essence and culture the novel feeds on.

Zooming in on how many broken lives came from furniture plant closings in the Piedmont area, the so-called “Furniture Capital of the World,” the figure reaches close to half. We see the aftermath, bumped up against the past, realizations that “life has amounted to too little.” When everything “screamed cheap, cheap, cheap and worse than that – desperate,” what does that do to your sense of worth? Relationships? Desire, strength to change?

It may be surprising to learn that this beautiful coastal and mountainous State has some of the worst poverty in the nation, especially rural counties like Pinewood. The deserted town reminds us of the collapse of white West Virginia coal country, or white, blue-collar Rust Belt communities, lives torn apart as result of free trade and globalization. Places that have been getting attention of late – Trump country. If my googling is right, the Piedmont area also voted overwhelmingly for Trump. The author, then, does us a service by zooming in on another section of America cast aside.

Billed as “The Great Gatsby brilliantly recast in the contemporary South” (quoted from the back cover) because an evocatively named character Jay – formerly J. J. Ferguson, a foster child who grew up in Pinetown, somehow made it out but now’s returned after seventeen years – seems to have “made it” big. The novel opens when Jay’s building a palatial home overlooking the foothills in “a section where the people are rich and their lives are so far from yours you almost expect them to speak another tongue.” Hoping to revive and reinvent the past with Ava, his childhood friend and once sweetheart, bringing whiffs of Daisy Buchanan.

While the novel is brilliant – prose that sings a song of such sadness – a different genre of book comes to mind: J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Ellegy: A Memoir of a Family in Crisis, which skyrocketed to national fame to grasp what drove poor white people in droves to vote for Trump. Watts has done the same for poor black people in this area of the South.

Much is told through the third-person, omniscient voice, allowing the author to delve perceptively, knowingly into the “drag of poverty.” Washington Post reporter, Michelle Singletary, recently denounced people who “talk about the poor, especially people who haven’t experienced poverty, [yet] it’s often without context or compassion.” Definitely not the case here. Watts hails from around this geography, so her writing rings authoritative, authentic, and raw emotionally.

The range and nature of these feelings – chronic strain, disappointments, regrets, anger, hurts, betrayals, and concerns of characters who feel very real – also comes from first-person dialogue that jumps out fast and furious.

Two of the most resounding voices dramatize the novel’s other profound theme – motherhood. A mother and daughter pair. They’re also connected to Jay’s past, so they’re also the most stirred by his reappearance.

Heavyhearted Sylvia is approaching seventy having “spent her whole life tensed and waiting for the worst to happen.” Fears she’ll end up miserably unhappy and lonely like her mother appear to have come true. Ava is almost forty, a wicked age for someone desperate to be a mother. Sylvia walks on eggshells around her, doesn’t know how to ease her pain or why her daughter is so distressed. Ava has a good job and dresses the part, working as a loan officer at a bank. Yet Ava’s all-consumed with her failures of trying to conceive and the constant praying she will. For Ava childlessness is a burden equivalent to a “moral mistake.” Ava laments “maybe in heaven you get back all the time you lost hoping.”

Mother and daughter have “sorry husbands,” even sorrier marriages. Both men expendables of the factory shutdowns. Depressed and lost, that doesn’t excuse their weak behaviors. Be it the drip, drip, drip or the sucker punch of their absences – physical and emotional – Watts gets us inside the heads of these women as to why it’s brick hard for them to let go of their pasts. “The hardest thing you’ll do is keep moving forward,” Sylvia prods Ava.

Both are jolted by Jay’s arrival, breaking the pattern of nothing ever happening. He causes mother and daughter to examine what’s become of their lives. He too can’t get beyond the past.

Another unusual event is announced on page eight. An outsider, Marcus, has been mysteriously calling Sylvia from the county jail. Black, twenty-five, he reminds Sylvia of her son, Devon, whose presence hovers but we don’t find out what’s up with him until we’re almost three-fourths through. His begging Sylvia for help speaks to someplace deep within her she keeps hidden. To underscore her “heaviness,” Watts imagines her as fat, adding more weight to her self-reproach and feelings of disregard.

Imagine how bad things have turned out when a “segregation-era chic” restaurant named Simmy’s near one of the closed factories stands as a dark reminder of when blacks couldn’t even enter the front door, yet the two husbands (and others) still hang out here.

It’s not just furniture jobs that have gone by the wayside. Gone are extended families and extended gatherings when hours of cooking special foods “meant celebration.”

Now the best anyone can do is just get by. Except for the promise of Jay.

And the one colorful character we must celebrate. Lana, Sylvia’s glass-nearly-full sister, who takes great pride in her beauty salon and cares about her downtrodden sister. She brings “brightness, her humor, her unmuddied outlook of the world.” Lana’s someone who has successfully reinvented herself.

Naturally, we wish others could do the same. We too can’t help but want happy endings.

Lorraine

Leave a Comment