The Book of Speculation

A family cursed? – A fantastical modern tale tied to generations of a family’s circus history (set in a fictional town on the Long Island Sound; backstories traced to 19th–20th century traveling circuses): The current issue of Poets & Writers magazine cites an MFA course devoted entirely to crafting first paragraphs. Herein, I submit The Book of Speculation for a case study.

Chapter 1 opens on June 20th (the calendar matters). The voice, our narrator, is Simon Watson, a twenty-nine-year-old librarian archivist soon to be a victim of budget cuts:

Perched on the bluff’s edge, the house is in danger. Last night’s storm tore land and churned water, littering the beach with bottles, seaweed, and horseshoe crab carapaces. The place where I’ve spent my entire life is unlikely to survive the fall season. The Long Island Sound is peppered with the remains of homes and lifetimes, all ground to sand in its greedy maw. It is a hunger.

Hungry for more? More keeps coming. This is not one of those novels with openers that hook us, then flattens. I loved the crisp prose – opening chapters, sentences, word-by-word. (Exception: Simon’s constantly swearing, tarot-card-addicted, rough sister. Named after the plane that dropped the atom bomb, Enola feels explosive.)

Three of Swords tarot card, Rider-Waite deck

I couldn’t put Erika Swyler’s debut novel down. A testament to how much I loved her taut, vivid prose because I shun away from mystical themes. Nor am I nostalgic for circuses or carnivals. Certainly not the freak shows. This is not your Greatest Show on Earth memories of slapstick clowns and fluffy cotton-candy, or Ferris wheels and skeeball carnival games. This is a darker underbelly of circus acts, where truth is an illusion. I’d never even heard of the term “cartomancy,” nor interested in tarot cards dating back centuries. The Waite deck, alluded to, might be the type passed down through the generations that keeps popping up, especially the ominous ones like the Three of Swords depicting a heart with three daggers piercing it. The symbolism of these cards plays out as the novel alternates between circuses past, Simon’s disquieting present and his near-future fears – which eventually converge.

The present revolves around the burden Simon has carried since eighteen. He’s been Enola’s surrogate father, after their mermaid circus performing mother, Paulina, a dark-haired beauty, drowned young, on July 24th. Their grief-stricken father essentially stopped living: stopped nurturing his children and completely ignored their circa 1700s historic house, so badly weathered by the waters today it’s literally falling apart. Then, he died of a heart attack. From heartache? Did he realize his wife’s family was troubled? Questions you’ll start wondering about as the novel unfolds.

It kicks off when Simon receives an antiquated book from a cheerful, elderly bookseller in Ohio with a circus-sounding name, Churchwarry. The rare book, adorned with eerie photographs illustrated by the author (an interesting addition) was part of a lot he speculated on at an auction. Simon’s grandmother’s name, Verona Bonn, was inscribed in the book, which is how it found its way to Simon.

There’s a hypnotic rhythm to the prose as the researcher obsessed Simon (who admits he’s better suited for reference work than people) obsessively researches the enigma of his grandmother’s attribution. He discovers she too was a circus mermaid who drowned young, on the same day his mother did.

Simon is like us: “I’m not a believer in curses. I like facts.” So he delves into circus history back to 1816 uncovering too many women in his family drowned young. All on the same fateful day. All circus mermaid acts. Seems his family has a superhuman ability to hold their breath underwater for incredibly long amounts of time. The skill (gift? curse?) lives on in Enola, and in Simon, the lone male. Paulina’s swimming-lesson voice haunts Simon. She schooled Simon and Enola to do the impossible.

As far-fetched as drowning mermaids over many generations in one family may sound, reference to the Flying Wallendas “dating back four hundred years, with a string of falls and accidents tragic enough to be called a curse” makes the family’s fate and Simon’s trepidation a similar fate will befall Enola seem plausible enough.

Enola, who Simon tells us is “not easy,” is easy to worry about. She’s chosen the same surreal circus path, but not as a mermaid. Prescient? She’s a tarot-card clairvoyant with a traveling carnival. Early on, she phones Simon, desperate sounding. She’s coming home for a long-overdue visit – abandonment a theme – accompanied by her tattooed boyfriend, Doyle. Another human freak act: Electricity Boy at the carnival. Doyle’s tenderness with Enola, and by extension, her brother, makes him likable actually.

Enola is aghast at the neglect of the house. Of course, Simon can’t afford the exorbitant costs to fix it, especially now that he’s jobless but he also can’t bear to let it go. He’s acknowledged he’s also “not easy,” but his emotional ties to his childhood home touch us. His neighbor, Frank McAvoy, father-like, can cover expenses. He’s fixated on this house, misses its occupants. His daughter, Alice, red-haired and freckled-faced, is a programmer at the same library as Simon. The two grew up together on this lovely and mysterious expanse on the Long Island Sound. Their friendship gets tangled up as Simon digs deeper into the precious book curiously in his possession.

“Portable Magic and Miracles” is a circus log meticulously maintained by a flamboyant, richly imaginative, profiteering circus-master with a flair for showmanship and a commanding voice. It details the comings and goings in northern and southern cities in America of his otherworldly circus menagerie.

The Fool tarot card,
Rider-Waite deck

“Never had there been such a man as Hermelius Peabody and he was fond of saying so,” boasts the journal’s keeper. Of all the weird acts he concocted, controlled, and chronicled most alive are the witchlike fortune-teller Madame Ryzhkova because her tarot cards offer a mute savage boy, Amos, a miraculous way to communicate. Peabody found him; turned him into the caged Wild Boy act. “We’ve all got to be somebody,” Peabody proclaims. He’s pecuniary but he has a heart, caring for Amos outside of the show like a son. Thankfully, the tarot-card diviner has a better idea. She mentors the mute boy as her trusted apprentice, teaching the double meaning of the cards (“Fool is fool because of blind happiness. He does not see misfortune.”) She cautions: “the seer is a blade. Too much softness dulls the mind. Silks and curtains are for guests.”

Was the fictional Peabody inspired by the real British circus manager Philip Astley? His name is casually dropped. There’s similarities: both had a large frame, booming voices, exceptional business acumen, and Astley was thought to be the originator of freaky acts. (Not all in Peabody’s circus is dark. There’s Benno, the strongman, “taught to watch for gentle souls”; and a miniature horse, Sugar Snip, who stands for kindness.)

Peabody’s writings drive home that no matter how weird or wacky or folkloric, circus performers have feelings too. The mute boy longs for a mermaid named Evangeline who taught him that “a smile did not always mean happiness, crying might mean sadness or joy, and that women could be much comforted by an embrace.” Amos also cares for the Russian psychic who also taught him how to live. The two women don’t mix well. “All folktales have a price.”

Simon figures out there’s a price to his fact-finding too. As the clock ticks, there’s revelations and a tense ending. Much to ponder but one thing you won’t need to speculate on: “Books have a way of causing ripples.”


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The Truth According to Us 2

Ties that bind – A family’s fierce loyalty and the history of a place (West Virginia’s Eastern Panhandle, 1938): The truth about The Truth According to Us is that it’s a big novel with a big heart. More truthfully, it beats with many hearts:

Two generations of the Romeyn family living under the same roof, a “white-brick and gracious” house with one of those friendly, inviting porches of bygone days. They’re a charming, quirky, irresistible fictional clan. Joined one sultry West Virginia summer in 1938 by a beautiful, sophisticated “princess,” Layla Beck, who boards with them, elegantly stirring their hearts and ours.

The warmth and sparkle of this literary gem invite you right in. Come casual and cool. Marvel at the delightful, versatile prose told in multiple voices. Smile at the family’s eccentricity. Transport yourself to a culture deeply rooted to the history of the Appalachian mountain region in the Eastern Panhandle of the State during the Depression era. Keep your antennae up too, for the complex family dynamics and loyalties that ensue.

While we’re talking truths, let me add mine. This is the same Annie Barrows who co-authored the widely bestselling The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, delivered entirely in the epistolary format. You’ll find those same artful letters here (Layla’s voice). But it’s the other voices, singular and nimble, delivered in chatty, sassy dialogue; in narrative reports (Layla’s again); and through one character’s nagging, painfully loyal conscience that richly develop the characters. (“Character fascinates me – the power of it,” penned Layla.) So, while I liked the Guernsey novel, the truth is I loved this one and bet you will too.

First, the invented locale because the fictional setting, carefully tied to real history, is central: Macedonia, “tucked up in a crook between the Potomac and the Shenandoah,” is a small town steeped in Civil War history where everyone knows (or thinks they know) everyone’s business. Layla stereotyped it as boring, populated by “bumpkins.” Instead, the “tattered, dead-quiet town square” she found was “seething with a white hot passion.” Remember summers here are so hot and humid even “the trees are sweating.”

Time to introduce the unconventional Romeyn bunch. There’s two children, sisters: 12-year-old bookish Willa, our main narrator, and her cuter nine-year-old sister Bird. Willa’s authentic childhood voice is surely due to the writing adventures of the author’s award-winning Ivy and Bean children’s series. (Ivy’s love of reading endures in Willa.) Willa’s parents are divorced, uncommon in the ’30s (about 18% vs. today’s 50%). Felix is their father, Charles Boyer movie-star handsome and elusive. His profession is secretive (something related to chemicals), provoking much curiosity, particularly for Willa, who adores him but can’t bring herself to tell him so. He’s forever mysteriously disappearing, so when the novel opens she’s decided to spy on him to figure things out, but of course that complicates things. Grownups confound her. But the reader suspects the truth is something darker is lurking beneath the delectable antics and gossipy happenings.

Willa tugs at our heart. She longs for her father, wishes “people fussed over” her, sees herself as “puny” and a “pitiful specimen,” rather than the bright, inquisitive, tender child that she is. You’ll want to hug her, but know that she’s selflessly cared for by her surrogate mother, Jottie. At 38, Willa’s attractive yet unmarried aunt is, in these times, considered a spinster. She runs this grand home, also atypical given how hard hit West Virginia was in the Depression. Her “enormous dark eyes” portend her heartaches and loyalties, which you’ll appreciate in her own words and moral code for she’s our second narrator. During the week, this colorful crew includes Jottie’s two sisters, Willa’s aunts. Mae and Minerva are twins. They’re so connected they can’t bear to live without each other even though they’re both married, so they don’t, except on weekends when they return to their husbands and farms. Rounding out this lively tribe is their brother Emmett, Willa’s gentlemanly uncle, an unassuming history teacher who hides behind older brother Felix’s charismatic shadow.

The novel starts off with Willa informing us that Macedonia is celebrating its 150-year history, or “sesquicentennial, a word I thought had to do with fruit for the longest time.” (Fruit growing, especially apples, is prevalent here.) The festivities culminate in September with the unveiling of an historic event, part of FDR’s Federal Writers’ Project, a New Deal Works Progress Administration employment relief program.

Federal Writers’ Project
via Library of Congress

The head of the Project is Layla’s uncle, Ben. She’s not your average candidate. The “black sheep” in her distinguished Washington, DC family, she defied her Senator father’s elitist marital choice, so she was sent away as a favor to write West Virginia’s first State Guide, one of The American Guide Series produced in the ’30s and early ’40s. Macedonia may be only 85 miles from our capital city, but it’s worlds away from the privileged life this 24-year-old stylish lady was accustomed to. With “one-quarter of the employable citizens of this country” out of work, she’s reprimanded about gratitude, but all Layla envisions is a dreadful existence over the summer months of her forced upon assignment.

How could she be miserable, though, with such a memorable family like the Romeyns? The truth is around them “she seemed to glow.” Her letters back home reveal her changing sentiments, as she interviews a long list of the town’s “most illustrious” and tours scenic and historic sites, becoming fervent “to make my little book the best history of Macedonia that ever existed.” Her WPA accounts surprise everyone. Turns out she’s a gifted writer. Of course, the truth is the real gifted writer is Annie Barrows.

Macedonia’s biggest employer is the American Everlasting Hosiery Company, a fitting choice for this part of West Virginia with a history of textile manufacturing. (This is not coal country Layla reminds us, it’s “apple, cow and sock country.”) In its heyday, the mill employed 950 people, meaning “half the town worked in that mill and the other half wished it did.” Hence, the mill fills the novel’s economic heart.

Willa’s deceased grandfather, St. Clair – a great name for he was a “Santa Claus” whose benevolence remains a formidable spirit – was its former President. Still, worker’s rights are a brewing issue, reflecting the rise of the 1930s labor union movement.

Which is to say that the scope of the novel isn’t all charm and nostalgia for milkshakes, ice cream sodas, penny candy, “sweating-cold” Coca Coca bottles, paper dolls, Mom-and-Pop department stores selling “snoods” and “jabots,” although there’s plenty of fun reminiscing. But there’s also penny pinching even among the most influential, entrenched attitudes, and a catastrophic fire in 1920 that burned down the mill, causing the loss of someone dear to this family.

An astute child plays detective searching for “the right ending.” A tragedy that happened 18 years ago still tears apart hearts. When those hearts are pulled together, the ending is the “giant blanket” Willa yearns for to comfort them all. Comforting us too.


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Romantic folk-telling – A folk hero couple in Brazil’s outback (Northeast Brazil, 1922 -1938): If Victoria Shorr hadn’t lived in Brazil for ten years, I doubt she’d have written, or we’d be treated to, this unusual historical novel about nomadic banditry “full of beauty and danger,” at a time and place completely unfamiliar to most of us.

In fluid, mystical storytelling, Backlands lets us imagine what it might have been like for two legendary Brazilian outlaws – Lampião and Maria Bonita – to have roamed a remote, desert-like landscape “cut loose, as if by magic, from the worries of the rest of the world.” The surprise is how much we have in common with the humanity of the couple’s motives and passions – powerful themes of justice, fairness, freedom, happiness.

As much as Shorr’s debut novel is about two hero bandits whose hearts were stirred by music and dancing, it’s also about a sweeping terrain called the Sertão, where they hid out “under the stars” for so many years. The reader, too, is swept along by a landscape that makes you feel:

“overcome by the beauty, the light, coming across the vastness, a color of light you’ve never quite seen before … an endless stretch of wilderness, ‘caatinga’ they call it, dotted with thornbrush and all kinds of cactus, though it isn’t quite a desert. There are trees, thick, beautiful trees, well-shaped and spaced, as if planted in an English park. ‘A vast garden with no owner,’ the great Euclides called it a hundred years ago, and it’s still true. You listen, and hear nothing, and then goat bells in the distance.”

The gentle prose isn’t meant to fit the decades of violence that spread throughout an area the size of Texas in the 1920s and 30s, by a gang of bandits led for fourteen years by Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, known as Lampião, before joined for another eight years by his “Beautiful Maria.” Instead, it evokes their hearts, in soft, melodious prose that could easily be read aloud, like legends passed down through the ages orally.

Because the outlaws, like their culture, were deeply religious, spiritual, superstitious – praying to saints to protect them, bring rains on their parched goat farms, keep them alive – there’s an otherworldly aura to the novel. Even its copper-sepia cover is dreamlike.

The Sertão, “bigger than Brazil,” is backcountry so removed from the rest of Brazil, “almost another country,” I’d guess most Brazilian’s haven’t even ventured there. But legends live on.

Still, if asked to name outlaws who’ve lived on in folklore, films, and books, Bonnie and Clyde, Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Pancho Villa would come to mind. Surely not Lampião and Maria Bonita, unless you studied or fancied folklore history. The Portuguese, who came to Brazil in the 1500s, have a word for these do-gooder outlaws: cangaço. And, there’s a journal devoted to outlaw heroes, along with a term to describe them: “social bandits.” So, this is a tale, comprised of many tales, of polite banditry (“murder and courtesy”) about a “bandit with a good heart” and the younger woman he loved.

The Sertão is a strange mix of American southwestern cowboy country, Australian outback, and something more fantastic given the waters of the Rio Sao Francisco that slice through it and the “very exotic bush with a beautiful shape and large base called an ‘Umbo” tree that can thrive without the water, their fruit and shade could save you in the desert.”

On its lands live the rich and the powerful, but mostly the poor, the very poor, the powerless. The rich were corrupt politicians and wealthy landowners, especially those who lived on the coast. The poor were those who managed “day by day,” simple lives raising goats, some cattle, and in the best of times, some cotton. They were also the ones whose boundaries were trampled on, possessions stolen, and killed when the droughts and famine came, plentiful in this area near the equator.

That’s what happened to Lampião’s family, including the murder of his father. He’d been a “law-abiding cowboy” who tried to avenge and honor his family’s injustice in court. But when he failed, he chose to go outside the law, to vindicate all his people, stealing from the rich to help the poor. Regardless of who chased and betrayed him – police, soldiers, mercenaries – he always outsmarted them. Twenty years without getting caught is a long time. (There’s “no such thing as old age for bandits.”) Except during the month of July, when Lampião believed his fate would be sealed. The reader senses the fatalism. Knows what matters is the romanticism of the journey we’re on.

The historical backdrop is a 200-year history leading up to the time when a new President, Getúlio Vargas, came to power in 1930. He sought to centralize and improve his country, which meant ridding those who terrorized it. Not easy when the “King of the Bandits” was venerated as a “thunder god” – untouchable, beloved, protected by the people.

Lampião and Maria both had charisma and style. Lampião was the bravest one, a natural leader, expertly skilled with an exceptional tracking eye (he’d lost one, injured by cactus) for the land he loved:

“Loved the very distances, the great broad vistas with nothing to break them, loved the fact that it couldn’t be tamed, couldn’t be trusted, and loved even what it took from them to survive.”

Moving back and forth in time within chapters, the novel is told in stories: of halcyon days and of the bandits’ escapes from the law, militias, anyone seeking glory to capture the “most wanted man in Brazil.”

Escape was also Maria’s reason for becoming a bandit. She escaped an arranged, loveless marriage at age 16 (how else could a poor family care for 11 children?) to an old shoemaker, six lonely, miserable years until the day she heard Lampião singing. She instantly knew he was her destiny, despite the risks. He famously sang about teaching love (in exchange for lacemaking, which the women did.) When they danced together, “she felt she was dancing for her mother, too, and her grandmother, her aunts and cousins, especially the ones who died young. Died of old age at thirty – the poor.”

All the characters are based on real historical ones, such as members of Lampião’s gang, like his brothers, Levino and Ezequiel, and, of course, his enemies. One was a lieutenant on the Piranhas (one of the region’s seven states) police force named Bezerra. The author has structured her novel to give voice to these two perspectives: a voice that speaks for the bandits governed by loyalty and love for their leader, a code of rules, and a “never-ending fear” of being caught. Often that voice is Maria’s. The other voice speaks for the police, forever trying to catch the outlaws. Nicely sprinkled throughout are newspaper accounts of so many who “seemed to have fallen in love with Lampião.” Why not? When he was happy, “it was like a warm soft blanket over them all.”

Lampião was “so interwoven with the fabric of life in the Sertão that to destroy him you’d have to destroy that fabric.” Which brings us back to where we began: An unusual novel about unusual banditry, fighting for a way of life totally unfamiliar to us. And gone. Until now.


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A Lady of Good Family

The shaping of a world-class American garden artist – Beatrix Jones Farrand (1895 -1920; told from Lenox, Massachusetts in backstories to Old World European and British gardens): Are you thinking, who is Beatrix Jones Farrand? If you’ve ever admired the elegant gardens at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, DC, or the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Garden in Seal Harbor, Maine, or Bellefield on FDR’s Presidential Museum and Library site in Hyde Park, New York, or Yale’s Memorial Quadrangle gardens – some 200 public and private gardens – then you’ve delighted in the aesthetic legacy of Beatrix Jones Farrand. You just weren’t aware that these artistically landscaped gardens were designed by a pioneering woman, considered one of the most influential American landscape architects of the 20th-century. Thanks to the author’s gardening passion (echoed by countless others, see here and here), you’ll find A Lady of Good Family unfolds and blooms in its own delight.

The first pleasing seeds are planted when you learn that two of the lady’s Gilded Age connections were those wonderful chroniclers of the clash between the Old World and the New: Edith Wharton, Beatrix’s aunt (Wharton likened her writing to a “secret garden”) and Henry James, Beatrix’s friend. So too does Jeanne Mackin’s newest historical novel transport us back to the attitudes and customs of the gilded era at home and abroad, bumping Beatrix’s New World aspirations devoted to designing magnificent gardens that fit naturally into landscapes – Beatrix’s real history – up against an imagined Old World romantic love – the novel’s fictional “heart history.”

Your transporter – our narrator – is Daisy Winters, whose delighting, reminiscing prose flows like “daisies danced in the breeze. My namesake flower.” She’s a fictionalized confidante of both Beatrix and her kindly mother, Minnie. We trust Daisy’s storytelling about Beatrix’s heart because all three were close-enough in age to be believable good friends (and we’re privy to Beatrix’s warm, heart-to-heart letters to Daisy). When the novel opens, Beatrix is 23, Daisy 33, Minnie 47.

Daisy’s vehicle for confiding Beatrix’s life is told mostly as porch conversations she’s having with three strangers she’s met at an inn in the Berkshires, where she’s staying for a week. It’s nicely situated near Edith Wharton’s white mansion summer home, The Mount (some gardens were designed by Beatrix.) Sometimes Daisy interrupts her recollections with fond and melancholy glimpses into her own life and heart. While she greatly admires Beatrix, there’s regrets and jealousy too. Without giving anything away, suffice it to say that Daisy’s character adds the perfect intellectual twist to the author’s creative intermingling of famous historical figures and details with famous literary ones.

Beatrix, you’ve gathered, came from a privileged, well-connected East Coast family. But like her understated landscape style, she didn’t flaunt herself (she “wore her wealth more lightly than most”). Rather, she quietly dazzled with her “Titian-colored hair” and “pale grey eyes full of sweetness” and “coloratura” singing voice. An only child adored by her mother, whose sincere charity-mindedness instilled a lifelong commitment to doing good works. (Daisy is also socially-minded, as she’s just returned from Tennessee, the last State to grant voting rights to women.) Beatrix, who found her life’s calling early on in spite of prevailing societal beliefs that a woman’s place belongs in the home, translated her mother’s ideals “to give back to the world” through the “pleasure and beauty” of designing beatific, spirited gardens:

“It isn’t enough to be beautiful … A garden must meet the needs of the soul as well as the senses. You feel at home and somehow enlarged, more yourself, in a good garden. Most of all the garden must suit the land … It was a philosophy of life as well as gardening: pleasure combined with work, beauty with practicality. The garden would both calm and awaken senses and memory.”

Beatrix felt deeply that “there is no more sensual activity than gardening,” so she couldn’t envision herself as the marrying type. Her determination and independent spirit were also fueled by a lack of close-up, positive role-models for marriage: Her father, Frederic, Wharton’s brother, was a floundering gambler; Edith’s marriage to Teddy was unhappy (eventually they divorced); Daisy, our outgoing and intimately chatty narrator, a mother of six who does not take well to a solitary life, is unrealistically optimistic about her also gambling husband; and Henry James, who never married, his sexuality affecting his novels, cautioned Beatrix (and Daisy) about making impulsive romantic decisions. Beatrix also keenly understood “reputation [is] a woman’s most important possession.” This is the mindset of the lovely young lady we’re introduced to when she embarks with her mother on a transformative journey studying and sketching some of the grandest gardens in Italy, France, Germany, and England (at the encouragement of Beatrix’s horticulture professor, Charles Sprague Sargent, founder of Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum).

Where else should the novel’s dreamed-up, dreamy romance be sown than a very proper, formal Old World garden? In this case, the Villa Borghese gardens in Rome, which is where Beatrix encounters a mannerly, shy Italian, Amerigo Marrismo, who is as enchanted by Beatrix’s “newness” as she is with his look “as honest as the sun.” But his is an Old World “timelessness” and Beatrix has set her sights on the New, thus setting up Beatrix’s inner turmoil. The novel’s tension persists as the two keep meeting in other European cities amid Beatrix’s horticultural travels, where Amerigo is chasing after a “little family business.”

Offering a playful contrast to the refinement of the old-moneyed, upper-class society of the Jones and the Whartons is another fabricated character, Mrs. Haskett. She’s the obnoxious one, representing the “nouveau riche,” an American mother desperate to find suitable husbands for her three daughters. She’s also key to Amerigo’s popping up everywhere Beatrix is, making it impossible to forget him.

Peggy Rockefeller Rose Garden
New York Botanical Garden
Designed by Beatrix Farrand
PHOTO: Jim.henderson (Own work) [CC0]
via Wikimedia Commons

Accompanying the charm and allure of the couple’s old-fashioned infatuation is the author’s depiction of gardening as metaphors for life. Chapters are introduced by three prologues, each summoning messages about the arc of the novel and, more poignantly, about life. It’s these tidbits of wisdom attached to flowers, plants, and gardening that shine throughout. A few examples:

  • Creeping speedwell evokes a life that is “full of uncertainty and unexpected happenings.”
  • An old apothecary rose signifies life is “not to be taken for granted.”
  • Daisy’s storytelling is not “embellished,” the same way “gardeners know better than to force excessive color or outrageous shapes into a flower bed.”
  • For trustworthiness and the “simple goodness of life” the gardener is advised to nurture the while alba rose, known for its “constancy.”
  • “Life was, after all, an experiment. What is the planting of a single desiccated seed if not an experiment in hope?”
  • “Life and landscapes require flexibility and a touch of serendipity.”
  • “A single plant does not constitute a garden, any more than a single decision constitutes a lifetime.”
  • “Walk a garden path and you walk a kind of eternity.”

Just as Beatrix left us lasting, pleasurable gardens, the novel leaves us lasting pleasures. You can’t wait to read or re-read Edith Wharton and Henry James, touch the earth, and contemplate what type of garden exemplifies the landscapes of your life.


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The Life and Death of Sophie Stark

The Price of Artistic Genius – A Psychological Novel (Iowa, New York; two contemporary decades in the maturation of an avant-garde filmmaker): Does an artist – in this case an independent filmmaker – have a “responsibility to make the best movies possible” even at the expense of others? How far should an obsession with making great art go?

These are some thought-provoking questions The Life and Death of Sophie Stark raises again and again, forebodingly, until you find yourself feeling like one of the characters expresses (and all experience): Sophie gets “under my skin.” As she’s meant to. The more black-hearted, the more we try to figure her out, creating a riveting psychological drama. Anna North has conceived of an extremely provocative, intense, dysfunctional protagonist, ripe for both a case study in an abnormal psychology class and a filmmaking discussion on personal ethics and professional integrity.

North’s debut novel is terrifically structured. Told mostly through the voices of those who knew, loved, and were badly hurt by Sophie – lonely voices of their titular chapters – you’ll find yourself, like them, trying very hard to understand Sophie but coming away short. She’s too full of paradoxes, so avoid labeling her. To her credit, North does not, for she intends for us to mull over Sophie through these exploited voices.

What you can count on is Sophie confounding you. She can’t be pigeon holed as flat-out depressed even though her emotional presence is woefully flat, cold, bare, seemingly heartless, as she doesn’t lack interest in everything: Sophie cares about photography and cinematography.

But she’s a loner even in the midst of relationships she’s involved with: younger brother (Robbie); lesbian lover and actress (Allison); musician husband (Jacob); movie producer (George). They are the voices that fill most of the narrative.

Intermingled with these heartsick voices are the astute comments of an unconventional film critic, Ben Martin. He’s not anywhere as far out as Sophie, but he burns with idolism following Sophie’s filmmaking career – her rise from high school to college in Iowa, to a fellowship in New York City, a brief episode in Hollywood and then back to the city. Of all the voices, he’s my standout, for these reasons:

  • The clever design of his journalistic career, almost paralleling Sophie’s growth. We see his seasoning through the sophistication of the media in which his critiques appear: from high school paper to local newspaper to an online site to a magazine to mainstream news.
  • He’s the wise validator of our interpretations of Sophie. Her influence on him as a filmmaker notwithstanding (Sophie “made me want to watch movies for a living”), he too can’t “fully understood her as a director or as a human being.”
  • Prose-wise his voice is the most distinct, lyrical, insightful, and my preference – without vulgarity.
  • As a “former unusual kid myself,” Ben can put himself inside Sophie’s head better than the others. He’s not the only character who recognizes her “genius,” but when he pronounces her artistic exceptionality we accept it since studying films is his profession. His analysis of the impact of genius on others offers an interesting perspective for considering why all the characters let Sophie swallow them:

“It’s one of the perks of genius that you can be difficult or even impossible and not only escape censure but enjoy praise and the careful ministrations of others. This is a source of especial jealousy for those of us who are merely difficult without the benefit of genius.”

While the other voices – narrators – may sound similar, collectively they add to our deepening appreciation of Sophie’s unique talent, and to the damage she wreaked on the fragile lives of those who cared about her and respected her as an artist. They may seem to be eerily drawn to Sophie for their respective reasons, but you’ll find a commonality of heartrending themes: extreme loneliness, hunger for attention, longing to feel or become special. Sophie flatters them by noticing them, listening to them, filming them, but was hers just an agenda all along? Did she use trusting people like props, doing whatever it took to startle and capture the “sad fumbling of human love”?

Which means this is a sad novel. The characters are sad, their stories are sad, and Sophie is the saddest of all since the only way she really functions in the world is behind the lens of a camera. We hear about her fascination with picture-taking in elementary and high school. Her filmmaking career takes off in college where she focuses on how people move. Her first foray was a short documentary, Daniel, a borderline stalking endeavor of a popular basketball player with a jealousy-crazed girlfriend. Other films follow, her talent developing, but one thing that doesn’t change is her intensity. She’s so fiery everyone remarks her skin was “hot.”

It’s tempting to tell you about each of these characters, their entanglements with Sophie and how sorely she wronged them. But I’d rather highlight some of Sophie’s paradoxes so you see the emotional range of the author’s storytelling.

THE PARADOXES OF SOPHIE STARK (she’s even taken her name from someone else, a photographer):

  • Physically small (compared to a 12-year-old boy at 23), but her artistic power is perceived as big.
  • Confident and bossy in her moviemaking, but hers is a “scary joy,” seeming to stem from an enormous fear of failure.
  • “Conveys deep emotion by means not generally considered emotional.”
  • Acts like she doesn’t care what people think of her/ haunted by what people think of her films.
  • Plain, casual speech, yet she’s complex, almost beyond understanding.
  • “For someone who didn’t understand people, she was good at getting right to what would hurt me.”
  • Unable to discuss her feelings. Her movies are the only way she shows her feelings.
  • Appears oblivious to others/“hyperaware” of others.
  • Films display mastery/films are flawed.
  • People are jealous of her/people feel sorry for her.
  • Makes movies about people/her movies take her further and further away from people.
  • Moviegoers aren’t sure if her movies are “a good dream” or a “nightmare.” Similar to readers wondering if Sophie’s story will turn out good or bad.

The effect of Sophie’s special brand of visual imagery is “getting down to the ‘soft core’ of people.” In remarking that her “eyes never blink,” Ben wonders if “maybe she’s able to see a wider angle that most people can,” as he writes reverently about her mastering:

“a particular wide shot, with the camera placed slightly above the actors and giving a nearly 180-degree panorama … less interested in reproducing life than in transcending it, showing us what it would look like if we were able to step back beyond the bounds of what’s humanly possible.”

Then there’s the aging movie producer, George, desperate for a blockbuster win, hoping Sophie is the answer to his dreams. Like Ben, he makes the same observation about her: “like an alien had come down and filmed humans and shown us what we were like so much more honestly than any other human could.”

George even goes so far as to counsel Sophie that it doesn’t matter if her process of filmmaking burns others, for those feelings don’t matter as much or won’t last. What endures are her movies. That’s what she’ll be remembered for.

Yet given the emotional damage she leaves behind, also long-lasting, let’s not be so quick to tout the ends really do justify the means. That’s too easy, and Sophie Stark isn’t easy at all.


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Into the Savage Country

America’s fur trappers and early Western explorers (Territories west of St. Louis, from the Great Plains to the Pacific Northwest, 1826 -1829): Passions run hot about America’s West, but imagine being captivated by fur trappers, early 19th-century explorers. You will be after reading Into the Savage Country. These so-called mountain men, hunted, preserved, traded, and blazed our “magnificent country. Fertile and beautiful and savage and the whole world thirsting after it.”

Told through the personal narrative of William Wyeth, looking back on three glorious, reckless years when he left St. Louis at age 22 to join a fur trapping brigade that headed 1500 miles up the Missouri River, a “soul-crushing” journey reminiscent of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Those famous explorers were backed by a President; Wyeth’s companions had only the backings of themselves, stirred by an “unquenchable desire for accomplishment, for recognition, for glory.” Muscular storytelling, as good as it gets.

Taking us inside his yearnings, motivations, and fears, Wyeth’s memories are of the “world’s great heart beating inside me.” Fresh and action-packed because his account comes from a diary he kept at the time using a quill pen, written in “parchment notebooks with velum covers.” Since the real mountain men kept journals, fictional Wyeth’s tales feel authentic.

Jim Bridger, Mountain Man
via Wikimedia Commons

Lest you assume trapping beavers in the years before they quickly became depleted, or hunting buffalo along rivers, sagebrush, and mountains before the days of cowboys is not the romanticized Western you’re nostalgic for, I invite you to hold the handsome book, with its majestic Mountain Landscape with Indians painting on the cover, and finger thicker pages than most. Its sturdiness portends the adventurers you’re about to meet. Many are legendary explorers who display the same unwritten code of honor Hollywood captured: fairness, justice, courage, survival, patriotism.

You’ll also like the author’s conciseness given the incredible volume of resources on early American fur trading: journals, letters, biographies, research. There’s even a Museum of the Mountain Man, which publishes the Rocky Mountain Fur Trade Journal to “further the knowledge base and discussion of the Rocky Mountain fur trade era.” Precisely what Burke’s novel does for us.

Structured in chapters that read like installments – The Voyage Out, The Settlement, The Far West – the reader is drawn into a time nearly two centuries ago when men were willing to sacrifice their lives for excitement, riches, or to prove something.

The prose flows. Wyeth’s self-deprecating voice is full of youthful restlessness and longing, for beautiful western mountains and a woman he falls for by page four. He feels “at the cusp of a great mystery, infinite, overwhelming, and bewildering.” Indeed, as Wyeth tells us in the opening paragraph, America is at the cusp of a new frontier:

“I was twenty-two years old and feverish with the exploits of Smith and Ashley. I followed their accounts in the Gazette and the Intelligencer and calculated their returns and dreamed of their expeditions. The fur trade was warring and commerce and exploration, and above all else in my mind, it was adventure.”

Wyeth’s trapping lands are the most pristine west of Missouri. These mountain men opened up Western territories, defined by the Treaty of 1818, which left huge swaths of gorgeous country open. Sought after by the British and of course Americans, these lands were also inhabited by Canadians, French, Spanish traders and many Native American nations: Crow, Sioux, Blackfoot, Gros Venture, Mandan. Wyeth’s adventures span what’s today the States of Montana, North and South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Oregon, Wyoming. Gigantic wilderness where those “gigantic, lumbering beasts” – buffalo – once roamed.

An eye-opening Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit soon-to-close showcases the striking art of the nomadic Great Plains Indian hunters. One reason its garnered rave reviews is their sophisticated artistry was not well-known. On display are painted buffalo hide robes, fur-lined leggings, feathered peace pipes, like the wardrobe and ornamentation visualized in the novel. It too delivers an eye-opener: to a “glorious life that flamed up for a time in the Western mountains.” While there were also “darker moments” – hardships, violence, isolation – Wyeth chooses to downplay these.

He also doesn’t want to bog us down with too many “particulars of the trade.” So I’ll take his lead and not even attempt to describe the “art of fur trading,” except to say you do get a great sense of the particulars from the fur trader’s language: booseway, calumet, castoreum, pommel, cudgel, pemmican, willow trap, hivernant, palavering.

Instead, here’s particulars about a few of the characters:

WYETH: Charms us with his boyish shyness and honesty (“puffed up with self-importance”). Aware he’s different from his farming brothers, he craves “vast, wild spaces.” He fears he’s no match for these “real outdoorsmen, mountain men,” but you’ll see he proves his mettle time and time again: battling hostile tribes, a moose, a grizzly bear, and displaying exceptional horsemanship when the stakes are so high the weight of Western boundary-making seemed to rest on his shoulders. His instant infatuation with Alene Chevalier endures throughout, from their first meeting in St. Louis and then later, fortuitously, when he’s a trader with the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. She’s “French with a quarter native blood that showed in her hair and eyes” … all very proper and European in her manners … she trod that middle ground between warmth and propriety.” He courts her as best he can, but she’s a widow in a long mourning who also understands the trapper’s life is exciting for the men but not for the women left behind.

Encampment, by Alfred Jacob Miller
Walters Art Museum

FERRIS: Wyeth admits misjudging Ferris, who joined the brigade at 19. The son of a physician, he seems “small and frail and boneless as a doll,” but his gentleness turns out to be virtuous good-naturedness and a natural confidence in the wilds. What endears us to him is his immense curiosity in everything around him, sketching and painting the scenes Wyeth recorded. They make an interesting pair, and become friends. Named the “White Indian,” for his genuine desire to understand the customs, adornments, and traits of Native Americans, so refreshing given our painful history of negative stereotyping. Burke introduces two famous native chieftains – Long Hair of the Mountain Crow and Red Elk of the Blackfoot – who despite their “excessive pride” are willing to negotiate and seek help. Ferris is likely to also be a real historical figure. Burke acknowledges some that inspired him, but we’re left to imagine who Ferris might be. John Mix Stanley painted the cover, but my guess is Ferris is fashioned from fur trader and painter Alfred Jacob Miller, who sketched and painted hundreds of scenes of Native Americans, mountain men, and grand landscapes. One he’s celebrated for is of Wyoming’s Wind River Mountains, depicted in the novel.

HENRY LAYTON: He’s a charismatic, energetic, boastful womanizing con man from St. Louis who knows nothing about fur trading, but knows how to put together a fine brigade. Led by Jedediah Smith, a real mountain man who like Wyeth set out at 22 to trap beaver under General Ashley, and to this day enjoys a following for having explored more untapped wilderness than any other ( Layton has an inconsistent personality of spirited highs and irritating lows. You, like Wyeth, will come to admire his dauntlessness for defending our territories against the British, and just about anything else that stands in the way of making the fortunes he boisterously promised his men.

Who remembers these fur trading explorers from history class? The best of historical fiction is a history light bulb. Entertaining, enlightening – and memorable.


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Paris Red

French Realism: Édouard Manet and his “modèle de profession,” Victorine Louise Meurent (Paris, 1862): The first clue you get that Maureen Gibbon’s 19th-century historical novel about the French painter, Édouard Manet, and his muse, Victorine Louise Meurent – he 30, she 17 – is going to be risky and provocative is that of his more than 400 paintings, the one selected for the cover is Olympia.  The full painting is a nude, one that caused such a stir critics did see red when exhibited at the Salon of Paris in 1865, two years after Manet finished it, after the novel ends.

Manet’s nude is considered the most famous of that century.  It may not be the painting non-art historians like myself are most familiar with (or most enamored with).  Those are his impressionistic masterpieces of later years – boating, beach, café, railway scenes – that evoke a “dewy-eyed” loveliness, which the avant-garde Olympia is not.  But Gibbon’s goal is to pen something original, like Manet’s passion to “paint something entirely new.”

She does so with spare prose that creates an aura catching Manet’s shadowy, mysterious, erotic world, which means her novel isn’t soaked in details, nor the totality of the artist’s career.  Instead, it’s a window into Manet’s art when he created a sensual painting that shocked the Parisian art scene, giving us glimpses into the inspiration of his early years, pioneering the French realist art movement.

Édouard Manet Self-Portrait, 1879
via Wikimedia Commons

Here we see Manet’s devotion to art that is honest and realistic not romanticized, the prevailing preferences of the time.  The same can be said of the author, who wants us to see the darker side of the City of Lights.  The novel is best appreciated like a great piece of art in a museum: by looking and seeing, understanding all by ourselves, with just enough details to intrigue.

So, despite the short chapters – sometimes only a one-page impressionistic paragraph, like the artist sketching – this is not a breezy read.  The prose is nuanced, echoing Paris when the lights are gray-blue.  We sense what it might have felt like to have been Victorine, who tries so hard to grasp Manet’s “not-simple” paintings, because we’re compelled to understand what the author wants us to see.  Gibbon acknowledges she’s thought about Olympia for ten years, so her vision and impressions interest us almost as much as Manet’s or his model’s.  (“I am trying hard to understand what it all means to him because I know that it does mean something.”)

There’s a sadness that permeates Victorine’s voice – our narrator – and the evocative prose.  Apparently, not that much is known about the real-life young woman who posed for Olympia, allowing the author the freedom to speculate.  Artistic freedom – Manet’s, his muse’s, and the author’s – a worthy theme.

What the novel tells us about Victorine is that she’s a precocious 17-year-old working-class girl, a silver burnisher.  She relishes the tools of her trade, learned from her working-class parents: her father an engraver, her mother a seamstress. But it’s not until we’re more than halfway through that we’re even sure of her real name: Victorine Louis Meurent.

That’s because when the novel opens she’s called Louise by her intimate friend, Denise, not her lover, more like a sister.  They share a shabby room, even the same bed, toiling away at the same silver shop barely eking out enough money to live.  That shopworn look is what Manet spots on a street.  He makes advances to them both, teases about their names, a “ménage à trois” at first.  He’s sizing them up: Denise, the brunette, with “a kind of sweetness about her”; Louise, the emboldened redhead, craving much more out of life.

Louise/Victorine knows she’s “different from everyone else.”  Hers is a restless yearning to be noticed and touched – to be someone.  So she makes a crass sexual move to grab Manet’s sole attention.  Turns out she’s a far better match of the two to become his model: she enjoys drawing, colors, details, and, most importantly, is very willing to experiment.

Victorine Meurent by Manet, c. 1862
via Wikimedia Commons

Victorine has been sizing Manet up too.  Her intense desires “not to be ordinary” are matched by his intensity about realism in art (“there’s only beauty in what’s real”).  A poignant scene finds Manet rubbing away much of a canvas he disliked, which upsets Victorine because she doesn’t want to be “erased.”  Manet sensitively explains it’s not the memory of the woman he painted he removed, just brushstrokes and composition.  It’s a marvelous example of his softness.  Indeed, Manet is a sensitive man, not content to “paint people at the edges.”  And yet he’s veiled, hiding his face behind a bushy beard.  (“There is something fine-grained about his face in spite of the riotous beard and moustache.”)

Artist and model also share a fierce independent streak.  Manet has the luxury of being an independent artist.  He has money to pay Victorine, presumably coming from a well-to-do family, so he’s not enslaved to paint to please the aristocracy.  Instead, he painted what he saw.  Victorine may adore Denise, yet she risks striking out on her own for “whatever it is in me that wants and wants – it is as big as the sky and keeps going.”

By the time Victorine has grown comfortable posing nude for Manet, she’s taken the black ribbon necklace on the book’s cover and made it her own.  It’s a pivotal moment, seeming then to transition from being Manet’s model to his rebellious source of inspiration, his muse.  By now he’s calling her “Trine,” an affectionate name reflecting the sexuality of their artistic relationship.

Was their real-life artist/muse relationship as sexual/erotic as depicted? Not clear.  What appears certain is Victorine was Manet’s most favored model.  Did he love her?  Not clear either.  He cares for her, is concerned about her finances, is kindly and respectful in the privacy of his studio and publicly among his contemporaries, but Manet is an obscure man with another life.

Most certain is his ardor for his art: “That is the thing that I cannot get inside: what it must be like to love something – a thing – so much.”  Did he make love to her so she’d trust him completely? To capture Victorine’s essence, she must unabashedly be at ease, in her most personal, raw moments, especially if he is to paint the soulful expression in her eyes.  When Manet finally shows Victorine Olympia, she’s moved that there’s “nowhere to look in the painting except my eyes.”  She recognizes that expression: “I know what it feels like to look that way … When my grandmother died.  When my heart was broken.”  Victorine’s soul, then, is forever a part of Manet’s “groundbreaking” art.  Now she has what she’s desperately wanted: she’s unforgettable.

Numerous sprinklings of references evoke the era – names of Parisian streets in the 1860s, French phrases, Manet’s artist and writer friends.  At times I wished for an appendix, maps, dictionary, but the truth is that precision isn’t necessary since the novel is about sensing moods and artistry, which it achieves.

Still, once read, I googled Manet’s friends, as some names were familiar, others not: Félix-Jacques Antoine Moulin was a photographer whose photos Manet uses to see the “effect of shadow and light;” Henri Fantin-Latour was a portraitist and painter of flowers; Charles Baudelaire, a poet; Honoré Daumier, cartoonist and painter; Louis-Émile-Edmond Duranty, author; Zacharie Astruc, sculptor and painter; Tonin, turns out is An-tonin Proust, boyhood friend and journalist; Tony Robert-Fleury, another French painter; and Alfred Stevens, a kindly, romantic Belgian painter.

Just as Manet pushes Victorine to observe her reactions, the author pushes us.  Like the famous artist and his muse, she’s “bold enough to tell the truth.”


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Girl Underwater

Heroism – Saving lives, then saving yourself (Colorado wilderness, Northern California college, Boston, Massachusetts neighborhoods; present-day):

Girl Underwater makes you wish you had nothing else to do in your day but binge read. The way it unfolds, and the taut prose, are riveting.  Artfully, Claire Kells delivers a message about true courage and the raw instinct for survival that is as much about hope and trust as monumental catastrophe and despair.  At under 300 pages, it’s stirring writing for any author, let alone one’s debut.

The novel’s timing is eerily uncanny given the rash of horrific plane crashes of late.  I’m not giving anything away here since by page 8 the air tragedy has already been set in motion.  Later we learn 204 innocents perished, someplace in/by a Colorado Rocky mountain lake, “the kind of wilderness no one comes to visit, the kind of lake no one ever swims in.”  Yet, there are a few survivors and two are elite swimmers.

Colin Shea and Avery Delacorte are swim teammates at a Northern California college, flying home on Thanksgiving break, which means the wilderness lake is frigid.  But it’s strewn with the wreckage of the plane, pieces of fuselage and contents that might help them survive. That taunting, haunting lake and their exceptional swimming skills and endurance are there for a purpose.

It’s with that same purposefulness, more like fate, that as soon as Colin boards the airplane he changed his seat to sit beside Avery.  They weren’t close friends, but that simple act belies the dramatic changes their relationship will undergo in the face of life-and-death decisions. (“The façade he used to navigate our stilted interactions has been stripped away.”)  Colin’s proximity to Avery is an incredulous stroke of good fortune, which is not lost on Avery who witnesses his acute sensitivities to her needs and to those of the people surrounding them over his own – his split-second reactions, selflessness, bravery, and calmness – which kick into high gear before others seem to realize what’s happening.  We’re told there’s “nothing embellished” about Colin (he has a “strange sense of groundedness”).  His is a tender way of getting straight to the point that’s honest and strong, much like the author’s prose.  She does not waste words, so the ones she’s chosen have a sureness and eloquence that is point-blank.

Avery, rather than Colin, is the right choice for narrator because she has insecurities whereas he possesses a “smooth, languid magnificence that so few creatures can claim.”  Her recounting moves back and forth in time in chapters that immerse us in dramatic scenes of their fight to stay alive; their histories; and the aftermath, centered on Avery’s coming-to-terms with being one of the lone survivors.  Life for her is now conceived of as Before and After: before the crash and afterwards.  Before sheds light on who Avery and Colin were when disaster struck, to render this survival story – theirs and the three young, trusting boys they heroically saved – believable.

Swimming – Avery’s and Colin’s athleticism and discipline – are key to the novel’s premise.  Colin, a junior, is even “better than Michael Phelps” in the pool, with his “rippling cords of muscles in his forearms and shoulders.  His jaw is locked, his expression neutral.  It’s no wonder he dominates so completely in the pool.”  He transfers that power, energy, laser focus in the crucial moments of crisis and for days after.  His “massive, warm, life-saving hands” perform like a well-oiled machine, “carrying loads that would pose a challenge to three or four men put together.”  Equally important is that he’s someone who “doesn’t just keep his cool, he creates it,” with “teasing smiles that could thaw a glacier.”  His profound sense of “hope without making empty promises,” beyond that which the rest of us would deem rational, is a gift for Avery, the three boys, and us.  All these marvelous traits are provocatively enhanced by his sweet shyness, “fierce loyalty,” and eyes that are “dark, tempestuous, gray-blue, intense.”  In short, Colin possesses a charismatic, complex, almost indescribable combination of the right stuff.

So does Avery, but she doesn’t think so. Despite her talents, strengths, and natural beauty (hair like “fairy dust” and “spectral green eyes”), she walks around feeling “borderline” – wanting to be “normal meant more to me than being me.”  Avery is passionate about distance swimming, the 1500 (“the “closest thing swimming has to a mile.  A mile to find a rhythm, to become one with the water”), but the coach recruited her for middle distance so she’ll “go where I’m needed.”  Her father, a no-nonsense physician, drilled her in fending for herself.  One lesson he taught her is that “people die because they panic,” a skill she, and we, get to see up close really matters.  Amidst incredible perils, her father’s wisdom buoys her: “I want to cry but my father would have forbidden it.”

The airplane crash scenes are action-packed.  But it’s the psychological action of this tiny band of clinging-to-life survivors, and Avery’s emotional voice that grips us.

Avery and Colin both grew up in Boston, but different worlds: Colin from proud, working class Dorchester, and Avery, upscale Brookline.  Of Avery’s three brothers, it’s Edward, a professional baseball player earning $6.4 million who surfaces because he wants to give all that up after his sister’s accident.  Hooray for a character who reminds us that “money isn’t everything.”  Colin’s father is a roofer, so Colin knows something about building protective structures.  As the oldest of three younger sisters and a dear Mom, the role of protector comes second-nature.

The prose is evocative whether describing the strokes and lure of swimming (the college natatorium is a “transparent cathedral”); the relaxed California culture of “hugs and first names” versus the reserved “handshakes and Mr. and Mrs. of Boston;” and the torment of Avery’s recovery process in dealing with survivor’s guilt, the intrusiveness of the media, nightmares, and paralyzing new fears.

One disquietude we can relate to is Avery’s conflicted affections and allegiance.  When she stepped onto that fateful plane her heart was attached to a happy-go-lucky boyfriend, Kahale, Hawaiian, “Lee to mainlanders,” who we see genuinely loves her.  But after you’ve been through what Avery and Colin have endured – events depicted and others we can only imagine – Avery is rightfully torn about her feelings toward Colin.  After: she feels “I’ve known him all my life.”

You’d think the relationship angst of “interpreting the afterglow of tragic events as the real thing” would be easy compared to surviving a plane crash lost thousands of feet above civilization, but it’s not.  Avery’s inner struggles are like the advice given to beginner swimmers: “there comes a moment of sudden, breathtaking awe – the moment they learn to trust it.  Not just the water but themselves.” Avery must learn to trust herself.

There are real-life Colins and Averys out there, private heroes whose heroism comes from someplace deep within their souls.  Since they’re not seeking attention and glory, we need a novelist like Claire Kells to make them real for us, inspiring us to dig deeper than we thought possible.


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The Precious One 2

Discovering/Re-discovering what’s precious in life (New Jersey, present-day): What is it about Marisa de los Santos’ novels that have so much heart?

The Precious One is the author’s fourth novel; I read her first three, pre-blogging: Love Walked In, Belong to Me and Falling Together, my favorite because the scenes set in the Philippines, where her father is from, pulsed genuinely.  Still, the details of those earlier tales are fuzzy, except for a lingering warmth that these stories of love, friendship, and family touched me.  So now I get a chance to examine and share why The Precious One, with the same signature themes, once again emotionally resonates with so much heart.

We connect because the characters feel real and distinct – good, bad, confused, obscure.  Some remind us of people we’re lucky to have in our lives, or wish we did; others we hope we’ll never come across, although sadly, we know of them.  Structured in chapters alternating between two female voices, one young, one older, we get inside their heads.  Others are important too, for they are mixed up in their lives for good and for bad, and they too feel familiar, well-realized.  Some you’ll like, love, admire, root for, and smile at their delightful sense of humor; others, only two actually, you’ll dislike, intensely.  A collection of characters perceived singularly because the prose and dialogue are sensitive, sharp, and nimble, conveying emotions ranging from good-natured/good-humored/tender to muddled to frightened to sarcastic/mean-spirited, depending on the character.

Allow me, then, to introduce them, and the storyline:

NARRATORS: Taisy Cleary, 35, and Willow Cleary, 16.  Yes, they’re sisters, half-sisters, who’ve never really met (only one dreadful Christmas, when Willow was an infant), until now.  Taisy you’ll want to hug and have in your corner from the get-go; Willow grows on you.  By the time we meet their stony-hearted father, Wilson, you’re already primed to dislike him.  Our animosity doesn’t soften much, although some of his grandiose behaviors become explainable although never condonable.  He’ll vex you, as unknowable people can.  More about Wilson below.

TAISY: lovely, self-deprecating, funny, wistful, brokenhearted, lovesick, dogged, and achingly candid when she’s around the only man she’s truly loved, Ben, someone she hasn’t seen in seventeen years.  A ghostwriter and editor, she berates herself for agreeing to spend two weeks at Wilson’s house – she’s been summoned after he’s had a serious heart attack – since he cut off all ties after her parents divorced. She, and we, very soon learn that Wilson isn’t looking to make amends; he has something different in mind.

WILLOW, a “beautiful misfit”: overprotected, melodramatic, “old soul” intelligence, jealous, caustic, lonely, and up until now homeschooled.  Wilson’s health crisis has thrust his precious daughter into a “soul-killing place” – a private high school – 21st century life she can’t possibly know how to survive in having been shielded from the outside world. Wilson’s overprotectiveness is obsessive, bordering on abusive: she’s never watched television or movies; been allowed to read anything past the 19th century (she adores literature; the author’s doctorate in English Literature shines through as Middlemarch, especially, is dissected for a class project); own a cellphone; have sleepovers; eat candy, you name it.  She’s been brought up to think she’s above all that.  Brainwashed to believe untruths about Taisy, she presents as impenetrable: “she spits venom at me [Taisy] with her eyes, but there’s something about her that sort of tugs at my heart.” Willow carries the burden of an irrational sense of responsibility for her father’s well-being and for her gentle, artist mother’s.  “If I could not take care of the people in this house, I was a brute,” which is why her fragility, evoked by her wispy name is apt.  The reader will see how terribly vulnerable she is.

MARCUS: is not the failure his father purports him to be.  He’s a financial trader, wealth Wilson hypocritically mocks despite being a millionaire.  Marcus is endearingly devoted to Taisy (he’s “home to me, the safest place I’ve ever been”), so we immediately take a liking to him and accept his “red-hot” anger toward Wilson.

WILSON, a “breathtaking jerk”: Taisy and Marcus can’t bring themselves to call him father.  Can you blame them?  He’s Taisy’s “hidden, broken part,” but she’s carved a good life down South.  Wilson’s request is that she write his memoir, not the full story, the unknown parts, but his “intellectual journey, my scholarship, my teaching.  The life story of a mind.”  Consistently, annoyingly pompous!

BEN: Willow’s high school romance.  Lovable, easygoing, attached to his great Dad, terrific sense of humor, with a laugh that was Taisy’s “own private meteor shower.”  You can probably pinpoint the cause of their disrupted bliss.  When Taisy learns Ben has returned home to New Jersey, not far from her father’s house, near her childhood home, we see to what delectable lengths she’s willing to go through to try to win him back.

TAISY’S MOM: A “tireless-lawyer-with-a-heart of gold job.” While she doesn’t say that much, she’s prescient about Taisy’s emotions and actions, which is all we need to know about her maternal instincts and unconditional love.

WILLOW’S MOM: Caro is a glassblower for whom “the most amazing things take shape inside her mind, beautiful things that exist nowhere in the world, and then she makes them exist.  How many people can you say that about?”  Over time, she turns into an ideal sounding board for Taisy, relieved to be staying at the pool house, a separate arrangement she adapts to easily.

TRILLIUM: Taisy’s sparkling, pull-no-punches best friend (an “ineffable iridescent effervescence that I would call Trillium-inosity”).  Famous for an international bestselling guidebook of Life RULES! which is the same catchy turquoise color as the novel’s cover.  Her “5th life rule”: “Every woman must have one friend for whom a lunch-and-shopping trip is always the solution, no matter what the problem might be.” Taisy’s freelance writing career got started as her ghostwriter, but leave it to Taisy to graciously give all the credit to Trillium: “What made her story special was Trillium herself: the cadence of her throaty voice, her leaping mind, the way she’d throw words out like handfuls of confetti one minute, and select them, one by careful one, the next.”

MR. INSLEY: Willow’s English teacher. Their teacher/student relationship develops over school lunches, then he teaches Willow to drive. He speaks as though he were living in the 19th century (“the obsessions of the bourgeoisie!”), and is impassioned by the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites.

BEN’S DAD: A “slightly goofy joy,” whom Taisy tells us she’s “probably touched him more than I’d touched my own father in my entire lifetime”.  It fits that he works at glowing botanical gardens.

LUKA BAILEY-SONG: Offered to be Willow’s English partner when no one else wanted to be. “Ridiculously good-looking,” with a poetic name that echoes his kindness, like Ben’s.

When the ever-hopeful Taisy relents to her father’s command, we assume something-is-going-to-happen to their estranged relationship will form the heart of the novel.  Those tensions and other darkness do lurk, but it’s  Taisy and Willow discovering each other, and Taisy and Ben re-discovering each other, and Willow and Luka’s finding each other that overshadows.  While we can’t fix all those who need fixing, right all the wrongs, we’re glad to have met a few of the precious ones who make us feel good.


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Mademoiselle Chanel

A fashion designer who endures and still captivates (France, also Italy, England, Spain, Hollywood; 1895-1954): Artists and their passions attract me, but I hadn’t expected this biographical novel to be as grand in scope, history, and mystery.

The scope: spans Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s complicated life from the pivotal time she was orphaned at 12 until her dramatic comeback nearing 60 (she died at 87, still working). The history: enlightens the tremendous impact the Depression, WWI, and WWII had on this accidental hat designer’s meteoric rise that revolutionized European and American (especially) couture, emphasizing the enterprise “is not folly.” Since both are meticulously detailed, it’s noteworthy that Christopher Gortner has left the mystery haunting her legacy for the reader to resolve. Acknowledging that more than any of his six other historical novels about powerful, controversial women, MADEMOISELLE CHANEL “was truly a labor of love,” one concludes he intended to leave the mystery up in the air, which of course is his prerogative! Lest we forget, this is a work of (historical) fiction.

Easy to forget because everything feels real. For one thing, so many characters are famous historical figures. Coco Chanel’s persona – fiercely independent, a creative genius consumed by work, headstrong, all driven by her fervent desire “to be someone” – ring loud and clear. Authentic and powerful, it’s the realization of a “dream come true,” says Gortner, who has been fascinated with the legendary fashion designer since his teens, schooled at San Francisco’s Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, followed by twelve years in the industry.

Are we to assume, then, that he also intended to present a very different perspective on the mystery? Was the famous designer – whose iconic name is automatically associated with the scent of N° 5 (and should be linked to the classic “little black dress” and chic cloche hats, all finely described) – also a Nazi spy?

Despite two recent biographies claiming she was – Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History (Rhonda K. Garelick, 2014) and Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War (Hal Vaughan, 2011), supported just last year by a French intelligence agency’s release of declassified documents, I came away believing Gortner’s opposing viewpoint, albeit fictionalized: that Coco detested the anti-Semitism expressed by her lovers (at least two); was horrified by Hitler’s aggression; and engaged in behaviors that could alternatively be explained if given compelling details otherwise. Gortner casts these secretive events as complex circumstances that might have happened.

Note: the mystery question doesn’t arise until the last 100 or so pages of a packed 400+ page-turner. I raise it at the onset to encourage close attention throughout Gortner’s skillful storytelling, particularly dialogue – relayed in Coco’s voice – and to measures she took that back up his contradictory position. In light of the apparent opposing evidence, it’s impressive how convincing the novel is.

Coco Chanel c. 1920
via Wikipedia

That doesn’t mean you have to like many things about the real Coco Chanel, but you’ll understand why she felt and did what she did, whether fictional or true. For the most part, hers was a steely heart, hardened such that “everyone seemed to forget that my heart was not made out of stone.” But we empathize, for at a tender age that heart was “ravaged” by her father, when her mother died and he determined he couldn’t parent Coco and her four siblings because his job entailed extensive travel. Anguished, Coco was farmed out to an orphanage, then lived at a convent with her cousin, Adrienne. These may have been stark, restrictive years but she was well-cared for and this is when her sewing skills were nurtured and noticed, gifts she learned from her seamstress mother.

Sometimes, too, Coco felt deeply: a “volcanic passion” for the only man she truly loved, the wealthy Arthur “Boy” Chapel. Once successful, she was notoriously generous in saving struggling artists such as the Russian ballet choreographer Sergei Diaghilev; and she cared greatly, fanatically, for her nephew André.

Surely we don’t have to love Coco personally to admire her marvelous sense of taste that originated simple yet elegant creations; hunger for reading; spirit of “freedom of self-expression and attire” that propelled her to free women from the constraints of corsets (a “rib-expanding release”) and uncomfortable, impractical, ostentatious outfits by using innovative soft fabrics like jersey, suede, and felt; penchant for natural creamy colors, also seen in her interior decorating, most spectacularly in an estimated $50 million piece of property hugging the French Riviera, once her peaceful villa named La Pausa; openness to ideas like studying astronomy to inspire a collection of moon, solar, star-shaped jewels; and democratic vision to offer women clothing that “bridged the exclusive and the commonplace.”

No doubt Coco Chanel was an extremely complicated woman. Harper’s Magazine may have called her “the quintessence of restraint in an unrestrained world,” but her friends were avante-garde – Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dalí. Her life was marked by extravagant love affairs with wildly rich men she befriended but didn’t really love, an emotion she worried she had little of, letting them overindulge her living at their chateaus, even once leaving her beloved France to reside in a Downton Abbey-esque estate. Having experienced poverty, she never lost sight of the advantages of money, as these lovers were her benefactors – Étienne Balsan; Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Ramonov; Hugh Richard Grosvenor, Second Duke of Westminster (“Bendor”), and “Boy.” They made her dreams come true: helped her open her first atelier in a Paris apartment, then move up to the glamorous Ritz hotel, and later venture to the French seaside town Deauville, renowned for horse breeding and racing. At the height of Coco’s career in the thirties she employed 2,000 people at three salons. A fantastical, fairy tale story.

The intensity of Coco’s ambitions and nature had its drawbacks. Numerous lovers, heirs to fortunes, but she never married. While she repeatedly declared she was already married – to her work – and didn’t want to be attached there were disappointments and great loneliness. She needed the intimacy of genuine friendships. There was the actress Émilienne d’Alençon, an early admirer, and the sympathetic Baroness Kitty Rothschild, but over the course of her lifetime her closest friend was an unlikely one because she was so overbearing and brutally honest: Misia Sert, once a pianist who made it her business to know everyone in Paris.

Coco’s pursuit of a perfect perfume sheds insight into her intuitive mindset. She wanted it to be:

“as expensive as possible, for that is the only way to assure its exclusivity. … “mimic nature not by exaggeration but rather by emphasizing the naturalness within it – it must distinguish and individualize, be unforgettable on every woman who wears it. Above all, it must last.”

Chanel No. 5 Perfume
By arz [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To manufacture and distribute the quality and quantity of Coco’s perfumery vision, she relented into a contractual arrangement with the leading fragrance company in France at the time. It was a business decision she bemoaned for years and years, adding fuel to the allegations she was anti-Semitic because the founder, Pierre Wertheimer, was Jewish. Judge for yourself if her consternations and legal battles were ethnically based. Gortner makes the case they were not.

Most troubling was her scandalous affair with a German military officer named Spatz. The intrigue of their entanglement deepened: What was the full nature of her covert, convoluted role during the war that involved Winston Churchill? Churchill was the only person who called Coco ‘Mademoiselle Chanel.’ The significance of that name as the novel’s chosen title shouldn’t be discounted.

Still, Coco’s war efforts seemed part of her destiny. When her actress friend advises her that “the right person, at the right time, with the right approach, can exert more impact than we realize,” we see how clearly that applies to a legend today.


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