Vacation reading

The title is a minor fib – this catch-up post includes one book I didn’t get to write about before I went out of town last week (but that’s a separate post).

Family History, Dani Shapiro

In Family History, Dani Shapiro has written such a nail biter of a plot that it’s easy to overlook just how good–and how literary–a novel this really is. Narrator Rachel Jensen is a housewife and art restorer married to Ned, a one-time painter. They live with their two children, 13-year-old Kate and 2-year-old Josh, in the small New England town where Ned grew up. In an elegant series of flashbacks, we learn of the emotional devastation teenage Kate has wrought. She was a perfect child growing up, but once Josh came along, her dark thoughts and tragic actions nearly destroy her family. As secret after secret is revealed, Shapiro gets perfectly Rachel’s horror of daily life: how can you chat with the other moms at preschool when your world is falling apart? But what makes Family History a fine novel is its utter freedom from stereotype. Kate is bad, but she’s never the bad seed; Ned’s a failure, but he’s not a total wash; Rachel’s a narrator mired in tragedy, but she’s a wry, slightly unreliable narrator mired in tragedy. Shapiro knows just how much hope to give her characters. In the end, their redemption is so slight that we actually believe in it. –Claire Dederer

This was a hard book to put down. The characters felt real, even though their situation pushed the extremes. The plot was an anxiety-provoking grabber. I had some issues with the ending, which felt like it tied things up a bit too neatly considering what the family had gone through, but at the same time made me wonder how well things would stay tied. I felt like some questions didn’t really get answered – did Josh have any lasting brain damage from his accident? what was the deal with Rachel’s mother anyway, and did her reaction to widowhood somehow relate to or foreshadow Kate’s to her baby brother? – but it didn’t detract, since life’s pretty much like that. I found the perspective on parenthood from essentially having two “only” children (there were almost 14 years between Kate and Josh, and they were full siblings), neither of whom was planned, interesting…and somewhat validating of my own inclinations not to experience it or put my kid(s) through it, hence stopping at just one.

Liars and Saints, Maile Meloy

Opening with a wedding and ending with a funeral, Maile Meloy stuffs everything imaginable in between, and manages to maintain a cool, elegant prose style throughout. Liars and Saints, Meloy’s debut novel, following her story collection Half in Love, chronicles the life of the Santerre family, who sin with the gusto of true Catholics. Written in a series of short story-like vignettes, the family’s saga is told in turn by every member, from Yvette the matriarch down to T.J., her great-grandson. We start out with a relatively run of the mill family secret, when in the 1950s Yvette sends daughter Margot off to a French convent for the duration of her teenage pregnancy. As the decades pass, the transgressions become wilder and more melodramatic, as if the Santerres are trying to keep up with the times by way of their naughty acts. What makes the novel work is that all the while, Meloy maintains a quiet, slightly wry tone: illicit lovemaking and bloody mary mixing are recounted with the same equanimity. She also gets just right the tone of each era. When Yvette’s other daughter Clarissa marries a jolly lawyer in the early 60s, he sends a telegram to Yvette: “HITCHED. THANKS FOR BEAUTIFUL DAUGHER. PROGENY PROMISED TO POPE.” Likewise, in the 1970s the characters talk just groovy enough, and the 80s have a wised-up ring to them. Most multi-generational sagas are dull forays into sentimentalism, but in the aptly titled Liars and Saints, Meloy has written a corker. –Claire Dederer

Reading this just flew by – I finished it in less than 3 days, counting an airplane flight, and I almost never read at that pace anymore – and yet this short novel felt like it included so much. While it moved between the POV of multiple characters, they all felt fully developed, and I just had to see what would happen next to each of them. I also brought the sequel, A Family Daughter, on my trip, but haven’t read it yet, since I decided I wanted to stretch out my time with the Santerres and not cram it all in at once.

Rise and Shine, Anna Quindlen

From Publishers Weekly
Bridget Fitzmaurice, the narrator of Quindlen’s engrossing fifth novel, works for a women’s shelter in the Bronx; her older sister, Meghan, cohost of the popular morning show Rise and Shine, is the most famous woman on television. Bridget acts as a second mother to the busy Meghan’s college student son, Leo; Meghan barely tolerates Bridget’s significant other, a gritty veteran police detective named Irving Lefkowitz. After 9/11 (which happens off-camera) and the subsequent walking out of Meghan’s beleaguered husband, Evan, Meghan calls a major politician a “fucking asshole” before her microphone gets turned off for a commercial, and Megan and Bridget’s lives change forever. As Bridget struggles to mend familial fences and deal with reconfigurations in their lives wrought by Meghan’s single phrase, Quindlen has her lob plenty of pungent observations about both life in class-stratified New York City and about family dynamics. The situation is ripe with comic potential, which Bridget deadpans her way through, and Quindlen goes along with Bridget’s cool reserve and judgmentalism. The plot is very imbalanced: a couple of events early, then virtually nothing until a series of major revelations in the last 50 or so pages. The prose is top-notch; readers may be more interested in Quindlen’s insights than in the lives of her two main characters.

This was a very New York novel, and very much a family story too. The relationship between the sisters had realistic closeness and complications, although since this was written from a first-person POV, there was understandably some imbalance toward Bridget’s side of things. The observations and perspectives on social life, social work, and society were often insightful and sometimes amusing, and the writing itself was good. This was another book where it seemed like the ending tied up a little too neatly, but not in a way that seemed out of place for the story thus far.

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