Written by Michelle Brafman
Published by Prospect Park Books on September 6th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Literary, Contemporary, Family Life
Bertrand Court is a captivating novel told in story form, intertwining seventeen luminous narratives about the secrets of a cast of politicos, filmmakers, and housewives, all tied to a suburban Washington, DC, cul-de-sac. Linked through bloodlines and grocery lines, they respond to life's bruises by grabbing power, sex, or the family silver. As they atone and forgive, they unmask the love and truth that hop white picket fences.
Michelle Brafman is the author of the novel Washing the Dead. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Slate, Tablet, the Washington Post, Lilith, the the minnesota review, and elsewhere. She teaches fiction writing at the Johns Hopkins University MA in Writing Program and lives with her family in Glen Echo, Maryland.
BERTRAND COURT by Michelle Brafman: A Bullet Review
- What’s it about? Bertrand Court promises an exploration of “the secrets of suburbia” among the residents of a Washington DC neighborhood. In this collection of linked stories, the characters are related by blood, marriage, and/or geographical proximity. They don’t all live on Bertrand Court, but those who don’t are connected to someone who does.
- Why did I read it? I got this from a galley table at the “Book Group Speed Dating” session at Book Expo America last spring. “Secrets of suburbia” stories are one of my “kryptonite” genres and I couldn’t resist. I decided to read it now so I’d be prepared to participate in an EDIWTB Online Book Club discussion. Bertrand Court is this month’s selection.
BERTRAND COURT: A Brief Assessment
- What worked for me? I didn’t realize that Bertrand Court wasn’t structured as a conventional novel when I picked it up, but the linked-stories form suits it well. It’s an effective way for Brafman to shift perspectives among the large cast of characters and across time periods.
The time-shifting includes flashbacks. I did not expect a book centered around a present-day suburban DC neighborhood to detour to mid-20th-century Wisconsin. However, Brafman follows one of her families, the Solonskys, a few generations back. I thought these stories contained some of the book’s strongest, most vivid writing.
- What didn’t I like? I don’t think Bertrand Court delivered what the blurb promised, frankly. I felt that the contemporary suburban stories had a sameness to them. And despite its titular role, the neighborhood really didn’t feel like as effective a linking device as the personal ties between the characters.
- Recommended? The blurb is a bit misleading, in my opinion. Still, I do recommend Bertrand Court for what it is, which a solid collection of engaging, connected fiction.
Reading these recipes transported me to steamy kitchens with medieval appliances and the scent of yeast and onions thick in the air, to gossip sessions between women I’d never met. I could hear them, though. They called margarine Oleo and the fridge the Frigidaire.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I became a writer because I felt compelled to transcribe these scraps of dialogue. Soon, I started writing entire scenes. I had no idea what I was doing, but I discovered that as long as my characters were boiling noodles or grating carrots, they’d start talking or not talking about what mattered to them in that moment. The rendering of these cooking steps provided scaffolding for the scene.
I often dramatized the preparation of Rosh Hashanah lunch because my own grandmother had been squeezing dozens of cousins into her tiny apartment for this feast for as long as I could remember. She always prepared a multi-course meal using just one oven, four burners, and a toaster. Three years after I got married, my grandmother died, and I claimed Rosh Hashanah as my holiday. I’m not sure I would have done so had I not scripted the meal preparation so specifically in my fictive world, or had I understood that hosting this holiday demanded much more than skill in the kitchen…
…Nanny had figured out what I’m now struggling to learn, but what I’d already written into imaginary conversations between make-believe people. While family members might bring a salad or a dessert, they will also carry whatever it is that they’re holding: joy, disappointment, love, boredom, gratitude, stress, or all of the above.