Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Sisters Mortland by Sally Beauman

I have become absolutely spoiled with advance copies from publishers. I keep picking them up, only to find the same stack languishing on my desk months later. I picked this one up ages ago, because it looked good at the time, and then promptly forgot. But I picked it up again in the hopes that it might be, as advertised, a “gothic page-turner.” I found myself sucked in immediately. It’s the summer of 1967 and Maisie, Julie, and Finn are three sisters living in an old abbey in rural England. Their father died and their mother and grandfather look after them and the estate. The beginning is narrated by Maisie, a gawky, odd 13-year-old girl who lives in the shadow of her father’s death, her sisters’ beauty, and the ghosts of the nuns who visit and speak with her. Daniel, a family friend, is a handsome boy with gypsy blood who is positively besotted with Finn, whose affections may not be his alone. A young painter, Luke, is also staying at the abbey, and is working on a painting of the sisters that will immortalize the girls and that fateful summer. When a tragedy strikes the abbey, all of their lives are changed forever. Flash forward to 1991, where we catch up with Daniel, a broken-down man who has achieved wealth, but left his former self behind. Still searching for the truth and for Finn, Daniel plumbs the past for answers. There are lots of twists and turns in this story, and the writing really moved me to continue. A satisfying gothic family saga.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Brambles by Eliza Minot

This book was so good, and to think I was putting it off, thinking “not another Minot novel”! Nancy Pearl put it on her top 10 books of 2006, and with good reason. It’s perfect for readers who enjoy family dramas and love character. Margaret, Max, and Edie are the three adult Bramble siblings struggling with family, work, self-identity, their mother’s tragic plane accident, and their father’s deteriorating health. The focus is really on Margaret, a mother of three who loves her children and her husband, while rhapsodizing over her stylish, carefree days in New York City. One review called her an “ambivalent mother” which I think is just wrong—she knows that she has sacrificed some of her earlier self to be a mother, but clearly relishes the roll—and the memories and thoughts that she shares about pregnancy, her eldest son’s intelligence, her panic over her children’s health, provide a complex portrait of a stay-at-home mom’s ups and downs. Max is married with a son, Rex, but is much less grown up than Margaret: he’s quit his job and hiding the fact from his wife, who begins to suspect infidelity. And then there’s Edie, a semi-addled bulimic who is the least developed of the siblings. Overall, this was a satisfying read. The “plot,” and the discovery that the Brambles make about their family’s past, was really secondary for me to the rich characterization and the empathy that Minot brought to each portrait. Unlike Franzen’s The Corrections, this was a family I could have spent much more time with.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch

So many of my friends raved about this book (thank you, Hannah!), and I am so glad I picked it up now. It truly swept me away into its world, and I didn’t want to let go at the end. Miles O’Malley lives in Olympia, Washington and is an avid beachcomber—he spends hours, day and night, exploring the tide pools and sands near his home. But this summer turns out to be life-changing for the shrimpy (his height is a constant refrain) 13-year-old in a number of ways. For one, he discovers a giant squid with eyes as big as hubcaps one night when he should have been sleeping. This discovery, and others, makes him a local celebrity and he soon has newscasters and even a local cult trying to track him down. But what I love about Miles are the subtleties in his character, the details that make him real—he’s in love with the older, bipolar, punked-out girl next door, his best friend is an ailing senior with Parkinson’s who used to be a psychic, and he spends his time digging for clams on the beach with a classmate obsessed with sex and air guitar. He’s a Rachel Carson enthusiast and can quote her at will (and boy, do I need to read some Carson sometime soon!). I have a soft spot for coming-of-age novels, and this one swam right past my defenses.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

I reread this for my book group (did I mention I’m doing scads of rereading?) and it was just as chilling and effective as the first time. This book is so subtle and unsettling. Again, what struck me about it was how it intimately details the horrors of dehumanization, of what has been and will be the experience of too many. While it uses cloning as its backdrop, it applies to so many other scenarios—and plumbs so many other issues, too. Like how self-hatred is taught, little by little—how deception is inculcated, too, and accepted wholesale once we’ve been conditioned to it (the Iraq War, anyone?). But the power of this little novel is that it’s not an ‘issues’ novel. Ishiguro provides a clear picture of what’s important and what’s at stake in any issue—people and human relationships.