Glory Over Everything 7

This post is dedicated to the readers and book clubbers who spread the word about The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom’s heart-wrenching historical fiction debut depicting the inhuman abuses of slavery and the complexity of racial relationships on a southern Virginia plantation in antebellum South, defying the odds by becoming a bestseller 2 ½ years after its 2010 publication (my review). For all who clamored for a sequel, Glory Over Everything arrives next week! Again, it tears at your heart continuing to pound big emotional themes about a horrific period in American history. From the opening quote by Harriet Tubman (from which the beautiful title is drawn) — the famed slave synonymous with the Underground Railroad – the new novel is glorious for its artful rendering of fictional characters who rose up to overcome.

Crimes against humanity and the price of freedom (Philadelphia, North Carolina, 1830; 1810 -1829 backstories): Speaking about the portrayal of slavery at the National Museum of African American History and Culture to open in September on the National Mall, director Lonnie G. Bunch III could have been epitomizing Glory Over Everything:

“We wanted to make sure you felt the pain of slavery, but also pondered what it meant when one group of people did this to another group … Slavery was not the only way to define people. They had a strength that I wish I had.”

The novel’s power doesn’t come from what the brutal characters do to the noble ones — cruel abuses of slavery on so many dimensions. Rather, its strength lies in the brave and decent characters whose courage and dignity warms our hearts and gives us hope. Surely hope is badly needed this political season as we see how deeply racially divided our country still is. Could the timing of the sequel be more relevant?

Second acts can disappoint. Not here! In fact, like editor Trish Todd wrote in her note to readers, I too think the sequel “surpasses” its predecessor.

One reason: Grissom excels at creating convincing characters through authentic dialogue. The four main ones are: Jamie, Pan, Caroline, and Sukey. They come to us in their four voices, with chapters structured and titled by their names and dates.

Chapter 1 opens in Jamie’s voice in 1830, then moves back and forth among voices and time to unfold character backstories. This approach gets us inside their heads, into their shame, losses, angst, and attachments to the past. (Jamie’s and Sukey’s linked to the first novel.) Each voice speaks to us in dialogue that hits the right tone, befits the character. Measured, not overly flowery, adeptly punctuated with historical detail.

This means sophisticated, thirty-three-year-old Jamie, who “learned to hide uncertainty under the cover of sophistication,” speaks to us in a dignified manner, prose fitting a bona fide member of Philadelphia’s high-society. Which he is not. The same holds true for the prose of lovely Caroline, nine years younger, delicate and accepting of her true aristocratic self and destiny: a loveless, arranged marriage expected of the upper-class.

Caroline is lily white, Jamie’s bi-racial, which sets up a key tension in the novel. The other centers on a black boy named Pan who, like Sukey, speaks in a dialect of broken vernacular English tenses. Remarkably, their words flow easily. Pan’s plight, along with Caroline’s and Jamie’s, drive the suspense.

Contrasted with the formal and gentle prose and the broken English is the harsh “n” word which invades the plot. It cannot be avoided, regrettably, if the fiction is to sear real. Which it does.

For those who read The Kitchen House a while ago (or prefer to start with this novel), be assured Grissom provides sufficient backstory, repeated, to bring you up to speed. Still, a little refresher: Jamie discovered his bi-racial roots toward the end of book one, committed a crime related to it, and then ran away North for freedom. Since Jamie looks white, he handily assumed a new identity but he spends the rest of the novel dreading his falsehood.

Harriet Tubman
By H. Seymour Squyer,
at National Portrait Gallery
via Wikimedia Commons

So when we now meet him, he’s Jamie Burton. We’re told he was thirteen when he fled to Philly, where he met an escaped slave, Henry, who saved his life. It’s too dangerous for the two to be seen together, so in twenty years they’ve seen each other only twice. First, fifteen years later, when Henry sought Jamie out to watch over his seven-year-old son, Pan. He did, indebted to Henry. Over the next five years, Jamie grows to delight in Pan’s sweet innocence, curiosity, and compassionate heart. Pan is too good and too understanding for his tender years and bleak upbringing (nursed his Mama who died; tells Jamie “I never have shoes before;” and is amazed “we gon’ eat again?”).

The year 1830 represents the twenty year mark, when Henry arrives through the back door of the respected home of Mr. and Mrs. Burton where Jamie resides. He beseeches Jamie to return South because Pan is gone, fearing he was sold into slavery.

Short, brisk chapters quickly bring us to the second plotline: the secreted affair between married Caroline and Jamie, complicated further by Jamie’s not confiding his ancestry with her.

The southern road ahead for Jamie is palpably dangerous. For one thing, despite his whiteness, Jamie stands out. Born with the use of only one eye, he wears an eye patch.

Not all is gloom and doom. There are tales of kindness and love, and a wonderful thread of artistic and natural aesthetics. A few examples: Jamie’s apprenticeship as a master silversmith and skilled painter of miniature birds using the pinfeathers of a woodcock instead of a larger sable brush; the familial affection of the Burtons for Jamie (Mr. Burton owns the silver shop); the steadfast devotion and friendship of Robert, Jamie’s manservant; and the forbidden passion of Caroline and Jamie.

There’s also the charm of Jamie’s ornithological visits to Philadelphia’s former Peale Museum and Bartram’s botanical gardens; a talkative cockatoo with brilliant colors; the lush greenery of Virginia; the eerily scenic Great Dismal Swamp; a tough, independent-minded, sixteen-year-old young lady, Addy; an abolitionist Quaker family; and a life-saving goat. These elements lighten the heavy heartedness of what befalls the characters once Jamie returns to the South.

Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
[U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Northeast Region (CC BY 2.0), via Wikimedia Commons]

Chief among them is poor Sukey, now a slave. Last we knew her, she was a girl living in the big house with Miss Lavenia (the Irish immigrant of The Kitchen House), both of whom cared for the matriarch, Martha Pyke. Sukey’s nursing skills and ability to read and write serve her well at first in her transformed life as a slave. Her fate changes, worsens dramatically.

That drama, absorbing much of the ending, will send chills up your spine. You may also shed tears, moved by incredible bravery.

Again, Grissom’s novel raises many issues, many questions. Again, perfect for book clubs. The first one that came to my mind: Can we ever escape our past?


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Be Frank With Me

“One-in-a-million”: Raising an exceptional child (Los Angeles, 2009-10): For every parent raising a child endowed with unusual abilities – and the teachers, classmates, friends, family members, and others who nurture and cross paths with that child – Be Frank with Me is a gift.

Wrapped in a catchy turquoise, top hat/monocle cover (a tip-off), Julia Claiborne Johnson’s sparkling debut has a big heart filled with wit, charm, and poignancy as it tips its hat to a “one-in-a-million” nine-year-old boy named Frank, who lives in an affluent neighborhood outside Hollywood and is a “devotee of film.”

Johnson also lives in LA, with a husband who writes comedy and has spent time on Hollywood sets ( Aren’t we lucky all that rubbed off on her? But make no mistake, her novel also offers a potent message about the challenges of parenting an exceptionally gifted child who displays many traits that from a layman’s viewpoint fall within the high-functioning spectrum of autism, or Asperger’s syndrome. She doesn’t label Frank, but if you know a kid like him, you’ll recognize how exhausting, exasperating, amazing – and endearing – someone like Frank can be.

Frank’s genius (his IQ is higher than 99.7% of the population) lies in his extraordinary language proficiency, photographic-memory, and passion for details. His Asperger-like attributes include: he can’t stand being touched (except by his mother) or have his things touched; tantrums and rocking motions when he gets anxious; doesn’t make eye contact; speaks in a flat, monotone voice; takes things literally; lacks social skills with kids his own age; sleepwalks; and is sensitive to textures.

The first thing to keep in mind about Frank is that he gravitates toward happiness (“a facial expression that almost came naturally to him”), so the overall feel of the novel is light-hearted. An example of how this plays out against stereotyping is that Frank isn’t pained by textures like fabric. Listen to how he good-naturedly and cleverly describes the fabric of a girl’s clothing, something he attends to meticulously:

“rayon, a wood-based fiber invented in 1855 but not popularized until the 1920s because until then it was highly combustible. Her rayon kilt feels like cashmere but is more suitable for playground wear as it is machine washable.”

The plot pushes Frank’s development to extreme by placing him in a secluded “glass mansion” high atop the hills of Bel Air overlooking Hollywood, with his reclusive one-book literary phenomenon of a single mother, Mimi Banning. Translation: he’s watched plenty of movies on TV so he’s a fount of knowledge about classical Hollywood moviemaking, legendary stars and their wardrobe accoutrements. He spouts information “as if he were reading off a teleprompter.” Since his mother has had the money and eccentricities to indulge him, his everyday attire – humorous, outlandish, gentlemanly, old-fashioned — doesn’t fit in. No wonder he gets stared at a lot.

Enter his literary sensation mother whom we meet in mid-life, a victim of a Ponzi scheme, forced to write a second novel. Mimi has also lost her immediate family; hides from the outside world and still-besieging fans behind a privacy wall Frank’s didn’t-quite-graduate Juilliard piano teacher, Zander, helped to build. Zander is terrific with Frank, and he’s a jack-of-all-trades but he’s unreliable, popping in and out of their lives. So Mimi reaches out to the only person she fully trusts, her Manhattan publisher, Isaac Vargas. A second novel, thirty years later, would be an instant bestseller, so of course Vargas is thrilled. He also knows “prickly” Mimi will need an assistant. Mimi outlines her requirements: “no Ivy Leaguers” and someone “good with kids.” Turns out the only qualification that matters is to take care of, entertain, and protect accident prone, into-everything Frank.

Twenty-four-year old Alice from Nebraska, who works for Mr. Vargas, beautifully fits the bill. She’s not a complainer (“Pollyanna”), an understatement! In fact, while Frank is obviously the star of this show, unshakable Alice, who is remarkably tenaciousness and thick-skinned at absorbing Mimi’s constant verbal abuse, Frank’s shenanigans, and dealing with capricious Zander, quietly also steals the show. This is to say that Mimi’s difficulties with motherhood are subtler, whereas Alice’s trials-and-tribulations and calmness cannot be missed!

By now you know Frank is a dapper dresser. His attire includes a smoking jacket, tailcoat, “three-piece glen-plaid suit,” and a “severe charcoal pinstripe number, complete with pocket square;” his accessories (besides the aforementioned top hat and monocle) include an aviator’s cap, bow tie, watch chain, pince-nez, cuff links. He evokes celebrities like Clarence Darrow, Sherlock Holmes, Tony Curtis, E.F. Hutton, Dr. Livingston, detective Nick Charles. One of my favorite lines comes early on when Alice is getting acquainted with Frank, gently admonishing him: “It’s not enough to dress like a gentleman … You need to act like one, too.”

What comes out of Frank’s mouth will delight: singular vocabulary like verisimilitude and homonym; sentences like “Allons-y is what the French Foreign Legion say when what they really mean is ‘Let’s blow this Popsicle stand, my friends!’”; and lengthier discourse like this one expressed while riding with Alice down Sunset Boulevard:

“the boulevard we just left behind, not the movie, originated as an eighteenth-century cattle path that followed the rim of the Los Angeles Basin and ran from the original Spanish settlement in downtown Los Angeles all the way to the ocean.”

Still, nothing delights more than the “joy and intensity and sweet, pure love” he feels for his Mama. That’s when he sees her, which given the stakes, are rare occurrences these days. When they do come together, it’s often precipitated by disastrous incidents Frank innocently instigates.

Frank may remind you of an amusing, charming younger version of Don Tillman in the bestselling The Rosie Project. Genetics professor, Don, also had undiagnosed Asperger-like challenges. You’ll smile, laugh, marvel, and adore Frank like we felt about Don, but Frank tugs at your heartstrings tighter because this “Little Prince” is just a child.

Like The Rosie Project sequel, The Rosie Effect, I’d love to see how life turns out for Frank. Mimi, and all parents whose children are different (and not), worry about their future. Frank is loved and cherished, his specialness appreciated, so we’re optimistic that his future will shine brightly like The Little Prince’s stars.


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Girl Through Glass 2

A Ballet Princess and Balletomania (NYC 1978–1981; Ohio present): Sari Wilson’s debut historical novel is as masterful as her ballet protagonist’s stirring story of “self-mastery.”

This is the fourth novel I’ve reviewed involving the ballet arts (see Astonish Me, I Always Loved You, and The Painted Girls). So, yes, I’m drawn to reading about people passionate about the ballet.

Like author Joanna Rakoff’s glowing testimonial, “I loved, loved, loved this novel.” It’s the most psychological, provocative, affecting, and darkest among the group. Since I tend toward the lighter-hearted, here’s why the hype rings true:

Suspenseful Structure: by composing the novel in two narrative points-of-view – third-person Mira Able and first-person Kate Randell — the reader is taunted and haunted by similarities and revelations between them:11-14 year old ballet student Mira, a Brooklyn to Manhattan (due to divorce and re-marriage) “bunhead” in the late 1970s and early ‘80s versus forty-something dance historian professor Kate, an adjunct teacher at an Ohio college in the present day. We race through briskly designed chapters to discover how they’re connected. For as candid as Mira and Kate seem, both are keeping secrets. I figured out one of them: the relationship between the two characters, but it took me awhile to be absolutely sure. Mira and Kate each harbor other secrets. Mira’s drives the plot. Eureka when its divulged. Which is why, dear reader, much of the storyline cannot be told here. No spoilers!

George Balanchine
Tanaquil LeClerq personal archive [Public domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

Mira’s character study takes place when NYC was in a downturn, but its fervor for the ballet was soaring. “Manhattan is in love with the ballet,” affirms our third-person narrator. For here at Lincoln Center was the home of one of the world’s top ballet companies — George Balanchine’s NYCB — and one of the most selective ballet schools in the country (only 1 in 100 accepted), which he also founded, the School of American Ballet, SAB. (NYC’s American Ballet Theatre, ABT, is its greatest competitor. ABT is more classical as Balanchine is famous for creating his own repertoires inspired by the classical, or neo-classical. SAB is considered more intense, and as depicted, has the edge in prestige.) Balanchine is also known for a distinct style of movements and aesthetics. “Mr. B” expects simplicity and weightlessness from his waif-like yet energetically strong ballet students and stunning ballerinas – a “cult of beauty and perfection.”

For Mira, the ballet studio is the only place she feels she belongs, where she becomes a “carefree girl” who is “floating free.” Free from her painfully disengaged hippieish mother, so unlike the doting, deeply-invested “ballet mothers.” She’s also escaping a “topsy-turvy” Brooklyn brownstone, and a well-meaning but pre–occupied father with a drinking problem who has run away from her mother too. Redheaded, freckled, thin, serious, sad, and lonely Mira does not fit in, doesn’t know who to trust, but wants to be adored.

Third-person narration offers us perspective and insight into Mira’s ballet dreams, pressures, discipline, and sacrifices – into the price of beauty, perfectionism, and ballet stardom. Kate’s first-person narration allows us to sense her intimately. She’s unsettled and unsettling, professionally and personally. She even confesses she’s “drawn to the illicit, the secretive.”

Insider’s Look at a Closely-Held, Coveted World: Sari Wilson writes with authority about an artistic world and places she knows well. A former ballet student at New York City’s Neubert Ballet Theatre, Harkness Ballet, and Eliot Feld’s New Ballet School, she also studied and performed modern dance at Oberlin College in Ohio. Even with these germane experiences, her novel feels impressively authentic, as she portrays the “vanishing child-self” who is:

“being molded into the stick-thin hipless Balanchine ballerinas, known far and wide as Balanchine’s ‘pinheads.’ If there is a fairy tale at work here,” Wilson says, it is not really Cinderella, but more like Hansel and Gretel.”

Poignant Balletomane: Ballet is an art form that inspires mania. Forty-six-year-old, grey-haired, polio-stricken (a cruel fate for someone who idolizes beauty) Maurice Dupont notices Mira’s special ballet beauty. He mentors her, calls her Mirabelle, then Bella. His beautifully-crafted backstory illuminates his balletomania. Through his character, we learn about classical 19th century ballet legends, as their photographs adorn his Manhattan apartment walls, especially Pavlova’s, whose famous burnt-through the toe box pointe shoes he owns and cherishes.

History of Ballet Greats: creating a dance historian character provides a splendid vehicle for also informing us about celebrated classical and modern ballet dancers, choreographers, teachers, and operas. So many greats were, of course, Russians; also Italian and French. Their names fill dance history books — Petipa, Nijinsky, Nureyev, Markova, Legnani, Karsavina, Ulanova, Taglioni, Spessivtseva, Danilova, Toumanova, Tumkovsky. I had a field day looking them up!

Ballet Prose: Ballet words dance gently through the pages: glissade, pas de boureé, changement, soutenu, jeté, ronde de jambé, port de bras, développé. A nice place to search for these terms tied to observing their movements is ABT’s ballet dictionary.

In under 300 pages, Girl Through Glass has it all. Complicated, ambivalent relationships. Characters struggling to define themselves, happiness, virtuosity. A suggestive title that reflects a girl who “never felt like a child;” a woman who feels “hollow;” a city witnessing a skyscraper boom of glass, fantastical and high-reaching like the ballet dancers. Classical and Modern converging. Life that asks “more and more,” while ballet seeks “lighter and lighter.” Artistry that personifies beauty, yet up-close we see the “suffering.”

By Lambtron (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

I choose to remember a beautiful young girl flying sky-high over the glass. You will remember her too.


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Platinum Doll 2

When the Camera Adores You — Jean Harlow’s Legacy (1928 – 1933, Hollywood): If you’re into New Year’s resolutions, here’s mine: keep searching for enchanting historical novels that let us escape the coarseness of today’s discourse. That’s why the spirited voices of creative souls reside in this blog, some taking us back to the glamorous days of Old Hollywood (see American BlondeA Touch of StardustLaura Lamont’s Life in Pictures).

What distinguishes Platinum Doll from these others is Anne Girard brings us back to an even earlier Hollywood era: when silent films were transitioning to the “talkies.” Also, she pays tribute to just a slice of a movie star’s life – Jean Harlow’s – when she was coming-of-age, impressionable, unsure of her ambitions, then struggling to get noticed and once she did had to “fight to be taken seriously.” For Harlow was a strikingly beautiful, sexy ingénue with ash-blonde hair who was also a comedic talent. While her “goddess” legend lives on, most of us probably don’t know the influence she had on starlets who came after her.

Lovely Jean Harlow was born Harlean Carpenter. Her overly protective, achingly controlling mother bore the real name Jean Harlow. She too was a blonde beauty and dreamed of stardom, but she failed to make it in Hollywood, starting too late at the ripe old age of 30! Instead, “Mommie” lives out her fairy-tale vicariously through “Baby,” micro-managing her career and personal life. Mother-daughter bond was complicated, depicted sensitively. You’ll find yourself wishing Harlean was more assertive, but you’ll also understand the tenderheartedness of Harlean’s affections.

Devoted, vulnerable, and actually shy in public speaking, Harlean was a lover of books (she penned a novel) and animals. We first meet her at 17, six months after she eloped with Chuck McGrew, age 20, when they’ve left Kansas City for Beverly Hills. Her self-serving mother and gangster-like, swindling stepfather Marino Bello soon followed, upsetting the young marriage. A charming, compassionate Aunt Jetty and best friend, aspiring actress Rosalie Roy temper their scheming and self-indulgence.

The young couple are living on Chuck’s $250,000 trust fund inherited from his parents who died in an accident, a tragedy that exerts a powerful role on their steamy, rocky marriage. Chuck brought his wife to Los Angeles because he adored her, knew she’d once been happy there, but he was too possessive, grief-stricken, and idle to accept that his gorgeous wife might want more out of life than being a housewife or mother. Doomed from the start because of Harlean’s domineering mother, Chuck’s jealous, drunken rages fueled her artistic desires and independence. It is for this reason that better known husbands and famous relationships with Clark Gable and William Powell do not play center-stage. It’s the significance of Chuck the author wants to tell us about.

The novel is a fascinating trip down memory lane. Its pages are filled with the names of stars like Clara Bow, Pola Negri, Gary Cooper, Laurel and Hardy, James Cagney, Jeannette MacDonald, Maurice Chevalier, Carole Lombard, Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, and even Rin Tin Tin, as well as the moguls from that bygone motion picture age.

And you can’t help but feel nostalgic for a time when people actually used the words “swell” and “keen,” dignified dialogue that fits the elegant white gloves, silk gowns, and furs that wrapped Harlean’s “sleek, willowy body.” We can imagine her “sheathed in a new ivory-colored, knee-length crepe de chine dress with a band of lace at her hips.”

Sure this was the time of prohibitions – alcohol, most notably, and extremely binding contracts with big studios who virtually made the stars in those days (Howard Hughes notoriously underpaid and restricted Harlean). But these were also dazzling times, and Jean Harlow learned how to “Dazzle ‘em!” (Hughe’s marching orders for the heavily promoted war picture that propelled her stardom, Hells Angel’s, the first of many films she co-starred with Clark Gable).

My favorite historical novels come with an Author’s Note, cluing the reader in on how true to history the fiction stayed, and what inspired their work. Girard offers that, and more. No spoilers here in case, like me, you suspect but aren’t sure about the trajectory of the actress’ later years.

Girard’s respect for the film star and the film arts results in feel-good prose. For more of her deft fictionalizing of artists, read her terrific historical debut, Madame Picasso.

Here’s to more enchanted reading in 2016! Lorraine

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A Window Opens 3

LOC (Laugh or Cry) – What we’ve lost in a world of acronyms (New Jersey, present-day):“I didn’t know whether I should laugh or cry,” concedes Alice Pearse, our witty, overwhelmed, and heavyhearted 38-year-old, booklover commentator. You’re likely to react likewise to Elisabeth Egan’s observant debut.

For along with the humor and running satire of an ultra-high tech world reduced to catchy and unpronounceable abbreviations (technically acronyms vs. initialisms), A Window Opens is an incisive, cautionary tale about squandering what matters most in life and work and the dicey balancing act between the two.

I’d love to send Anne Weisberg, senior VP at the Families and Work Institute, Egan’s new book to see if she’d be laughing or crying. Her argument for “how trapped we still are in a work culture that still prizes total availability at the office at all times” couldn’t be more timely and fitting to Egan’s contemporary plot.

Set in Filament, an imaginary New Jersey suburb beautifully situated near important things in Alice’s life: the elementary school her three endearing children attend; her parents; her best friend’s independent bookstore; and the train station to Manhattan, where Alice has been happily working PT as a books editor for a fictitious magazine, You.

“Book people stick together,” Alice declares, a rally cry from a character who surely mimics the author’s stance as the books editor for Glamour magazine. (Egan’s book reviews have also appeared in other magazines, national newspapers, online publications.) Egan even did a stint at Amazon, which plays mightily into the storyline when from out-of-the-blue Alice’s financial status drastically spirals downward, driving her to seek FT employment. Alice could be your real chin-up, harried friend, so the whole time you’re reading you’re wishing you could warn her about the job she’s too-hastily accepted at an Amazon-like company with a laser mission to “reinvent reading like Starbucks reinvented coffee.” Hmmm.

Alice’s delights, worries, frustrations, and anguish will resonate. You don’t have to be a mother – stay-at-home, PT, or FT – to commiserate with Alice’s tug-of-war for precious time. Nor be married to a reticent husband like Alice’s, Nicholas, a corporate lawyer who loses his cool when he learns he’s not partner material, quits, and then unilaterally decides to start-out on his own, to relate to Alice’s unexpected stressors, which impact her and her family and threaten a cherished friendship. You also don’t have to live near/in the Big Apple, “the literary universe of the world,” or have parents woven into the daily fabric of your life.

All you need is a passion for books and Indie bookstores. Add to that having someone very close to you whose endured cancer like Alice’s father; throat cancer robbed him of his physical voice (he’s an avid emailer). Perhaps you’re addicted to/feel compelled to have an active presence on social media. Or, simply, have way too much on your plate. In my book, that covers just about everyone. Which means A Window Opens will touch a chord.

When we first meet Alice, she and her kids ages 11, 8, 5 – Margot, Oliver, and Georgie – are walking home from school as a “chain of seven happy people holding hands.” Their 25-year-old, “cool rocker” babysitter Jessie has been “unflappable” for the past seven years. She’s the “opposite of Mary Poppins,” but she’s more than a life-saver. She’s family. And yes, she rises to the occasion as Alice’s new career takes its toll.

Even if you’re not on Twitter, you can imagine how exciting it might have felt when literary-job hunting Alice is discovered in that virtual universe by an employee of a company digitally named Scroll, with offices in Manhattan, promising to “create an unforgettable reading experience for its customers.”

The opportune word is customers. Because all Scroll cares about is the bottom line – not SSR (sustained silent reading), a “literary salon” experience pitched to Alice. Everything about their brutal marketplace mentality (the parent company is a retail behemoth headquartered in Cleveland where their galleria owned malls saved jobs) screams beware!

Alice, though, is an optimistic soul, so when she/“employee #305” enters her minimalist, impersonal white workplace she translates “stark” into “elegant.” Keep in mind she’s also an independent soul (she kept her maiden name) who is determined to succeed. Fear of failure, a potent yet misguided motivator.

That’s why it takes her a painfully long time to come to grips with the fact that the job she signed onto is not the one she’s getting. So she admirably (?) cheers herself on to getting accustomed to Scroll’s confounding codes and crazy, clinical work ethic: “OOTO (out of the office), WFH (work from home), DA (doctor’s appointment), BL (business lunch), VIM (very important meeting), EOD (end of day),” and plenty more like the one Alice eventually concocts: WTFAIDH. (The reader can translate that one!)

Alice’s FT working-Mom existence while her husband is silently struggling to make a go of it and her father’s health is precarious unfolds as a poignant tale of “expectations recalibrated.” Her children are “exhausted and bedraggled,” but so is she. (Oliver is a heartbreaker, faithfully racing to the train station to greet his mother. So is the time Alice realizes Georgie can read and she didn’t even know it.) She’s aware of Nicholas’ descent into problematic drinking, but there never seems to be the right time to deal head on with this “elephant” in the room. She heroically tries not to let go of still always being there for her stoical parents, but the oppressive job is 24/7 so sadly she’s not.

You may yearn for an Alice who is more assertive, more available, more decisive. The strength of those feelings says a lot about Egan’s realistic portrayal of a traumatic year in the life of someone struggling to stay afloat as best she can. Inside, though, Alice admits she’s the “Grand Canyon of heartbreak contained.”

Which is to say you probably know someone like Alice, trying so hard to balance it all. Egan’s message is sometimes the intrinsic costs are not worth it, and the sooner we wake up to that reality the better. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing the problem is me. In Alice’s case, she’s older than her counterparts and the only Mom, so her mindset is: persevere, check more emails, adapt to this newfangled way of thinking and communicating.

Is it easier to live in denial? Ironically, the drama that shakes that viewpoint the loudest involves Alice’s forced-to-retire, voiceless father. His steadfast, caring emails and signature ending – LOL (Lots of Love) – remind us of all the good technology brings, including how it can level the playing field for people with disabilities. He’s Oliver’s “most inspiring person,” another reason to cheer this sweet boy. His sensitivity to his grandfather’s off-putting mechanical voice box, “Buzz Lightyear,” is more empathetic than some adults might be.

Chapters cycle through the four seasons, summoning the eternal cycles of life. For Alice and the rest of us, life goes on. Some years fare happier than others. Hopefully, in all years we absorb something meaningful to improve upon. So we can contentedly answer Alice’s question: “Are you the person you want to be?”


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