As a knife accidentally slices into her wrist, Joséphine realizes she would be glad to simply slip away from her life.
At that moment, Joséphine understands that her husband, Antoine, will never find work. He’ll carry on with his mistress, and she’ll have to put food on the table. As a medieval historian, her financial prospects are slim. Out of the blue, her chic sister, Iris, offers her a Faustian bargain: Write a novel set in her beloved 12th century, but allow Iris to claim authorship. Joséphine will get the money, but Iris will get the fame—the spotlight has always been Iris’ preferred residence. Once a promising film student, Iris staggered everyone 10 years ago by marrying Phillipe, a staid French attorney, settling into a posh lifestyle and abandoning her ambition. So Joséphine sets to work. She's complemented by a richly drawn cast of supporting characters, including the darkly handsome Luca, whom she befriends at the library, and her haughty teenage daughter, Hortense, who alternates between disdainfully humiliating her mother and shamelessly wooing her wealthy Aunt Iris. Meanwhile, Marcel, Iris and Joséphine’s stepfather, cavorts with his beloved secretary. And below the equator, Antoine manages a crocodile farm in Kenya, where he spends his evenings gazing into their hypnotic yellow eyes, looking for the answer to his problems. An international best-seller, this is the first of Pancol’s novels to be translated into English and the first in a trilogy following Joséphine’s family.
Aside from introducing a few contrived plot twists, Pancol deftly manages the constellation of characters in a cleareyed, warmly funny tale.
Jackson’s novel perfectly captures the flavor and rhythm of Southern life as a young woman preparing for college finds herself caught up in a real-life drama.
Shandi has a miracle baby. His name is Nathan, but she and her BFF, Walcott, call the precocious 3-year-old genius Natty. As Shandi moves out of her mother’s home to her successful physician father’s condominium in Atlanta, she, Walcott and Natty become caught up in an armed robbery. It’s during this robbery that Shandi meets William Ashe, a giant of a man with a palpable, lingering sorrow. When William takes a bullet during the robbery, Shandi decides to take on William and starts caring for him on the day he leaves the hospital. In due course, she discovers that William’s suffered a tragic loss and finds herself fighting both his memories of happier times and his best friend, Paula, who makes it clear she wants Shandi out of the picture. However, Shandi is coping with a dilemma she thinks William can help her resolve: discovering the identity of the man who fathered her child. Shandi conceived Natty after being raped at a college party years before and still has enough of his DNA to possibly deduce his identity. William, a research scientist, has both the tools and the know-how to narrow down, if not figure out, just who her attacker might be. Jackson draws on her own Southern roots to paint this pitch-perfect portrait of a girl from a small town in Georgia. She traces Shandi’s struggles to figure out what, if anything, William really means to her. Wrapped in a thoughtful, often funny and insightful narrative that brings Shandi and those in her satellite to life, Jackson presents the reader with a story that is never predictable and is awash in bittersweet love, regret and the promise of what could be.
A surprising novel, both graceful and tender. You won't be able to put it down.
A prize-winning, cross-generational love story of missed connections and delayed gratification hits a seam of pure romantic gold.
Star-crossed is an understatement for the ill-fated love between trophy wife Jennifer Stirling and hard-drinking journalist Anthony O’Hare in British writer Moyes’ cleverly constructed, cliffhanger-strewn tale of heartache in two strikingly different eras. Jennifer and Anthony meet in the South of France in that strait-laced time just before the 1960s blew social conventions apart. Jennifer, married to a powerful businessman whose fortunes derive from asbestos, is a Grace Kelly look-alike, beautiful and seemingly blessed with a perfect life. But as the story opens with her attempts to reconstruct her existence after post–traffic-accident amnesia it becomes apparent that her marriage has a cold heart compared to recently experienced passion. Held back by convention and fear, she hesitates to grasp her first chance at happiness. Later, other and larger impediments stand between the two lovers whose commitment finds expression in letters which come to light again 40 years later in the library of a relocated newspaper. Journalist Ellie Haworth, involved with a married man, is moved by the words and starts to piece the story together, in the process coming to a different understanding of what love really means.
A nicely judged sense of period and the author’s full-blooded commitment lend heartfelt emotion to simple characters in a tour de force of its kind.
Gilbert’s sweeping saga of Henry Whittaker and his daughter Alma offers an allegory for the great, rampant heart of the 19th century.
All guile, audacity and intelligence, Whittaker, born in a dirt-floored hovel to a Kew Garden arborist, comes under the tutelage of the celebrated Sir Joseph Banks. Banks employs Whittaker to gather botany samples from exotic climes. Even after discovering chinchona—quinine’s source—in Peru, Henry’s snubbed for nomination to the Royal Society of Fellows by Banks. Instead, Henry trades cultivation secrets to the Dutch and earns riches in Java growing chinchona. Henry marries Beatrix van Devender, daughter of Holland’s renowned Hortus Botanicus’ curator. They move to Philadelphia, build an estate and birth Alma in 1800. Gilbert’s descriptions of Henry’s childhood, expeditions and life at the luxurious White Acre estate are superb. The dense, descriptive writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past, yet it’s laced with spare ironical touches and elegant phrasing—a hummingbird, "a jeweled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon." Characters leap into life, visible and vibrant: Henry—"unrivaled arborist, a ruthless merchant, and a brilliant innovator"—a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. Raised with Dutch discipline and immersed in intellectual salons, Alma—botany explorations paralleling 19th-century natural philosophers becoming true scientists—develops a "Theory of Competitive Alteration" in near concurrence with Darwin and Wallace. There’s stoic Beatrix, wife and mother; saintly Prudence, Alma’s adopted sister; devoted Hanneke de Groot, housekeeper and confidante; silent, forbidding Dick Yancey, Henry’s ruthless factotum; and Ambrose Pike, mystical, half-crazed artist. Alma, tall, ungainly, "ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose," and yet thoroughly sensual, marries Ambrose, learning too late he intends marriage blanc, an unconsummated union. Multiple narrative threads weave seamlessly into a saga reminiscent of T. C. Boyle’s Water Music, with Alma following Ambrose to Tahiti and then returning alone to prosper at Hortus Botanicus, thinking herself "the most fortunate woman who ever lived."
A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination.
In McBride’s version of events, John Brown’s body doesn’t lie a-mouldering in the grave—he’s alive and vigorous and fanatical and doomed, so one could say his soul does indeed go marching on.
The unlikely narrator of the events leading up to Brown’s quixotic raid at Harpers Ferry is Henry Shackleford, aka Little Onion, whose father is killed when Brown comes in to liberate some slaves. Brown whisks the 12-year-old away thinking he’s a girl, and Onion keeps up the disguise for the next few years. This fluidity of gender identity allows Onion a certain leeway in his life, for example, he gets taken in by Pie, a beautiful prostitute, where he witnesses some activity almost more unseemly than a 12-year-old can stand. The interlude with Pie occurs during a two-year period where Brown disappears from Onion’s life, but they’re reunited a few months before the debacle at Harpers Ferry. In that time, Brown visits Frederick Douglass, and, in the most implausible scene in the novel, Douglass gets tight and chases after the nubile Onion. The stakes are raised as Brown approaches October 1859, for even Onion recognizes the futility of the raid, where Brown expects hundreds of slaves to rise in revolt and gets only a handful. Onion notes that Brown’s fanaticism increasingly approaches “lunacy” as the time for the raid gets closer, and Brown never loses that obsessive glint in his eye that tells him he’s doing the Lord’s work. At the end, Onion reasserts his identity as a male and escapes just before Brown’s execution.
McBride presents an interesting experiment in point of view here, as all of Brown’s activities are filtered through the eyes of a young adolescent who wavers between innocence and cynicism.
A layered, mannered, beguiling yarn, longlisted for the Booker Prize, by New Zealander novelist Catton.
When Walter Moody arrives on a “wild shard of the Coast”—that of the then-remote South Island—in late January 1866, he discovers that strange doings are afoot: A local worthy has disappeared, a local belle de nuit has tried to do herself in, the town drunk turns out to possess a fortune against all odds, and the whole town is mumbling, murmuring and whispering like Sweethaven in Robert Altman’s Popeye. Indeed, when Moody walks into his hotel on that—yes, dark and stormy—night, he interrupts a gathering of 12 local men who are trying to get to the bottom of the matter. Moody, as it turns out, is trained as a lawyer—“By training only,” he demurs, “I have not yet been called to the Bar”—but, like everyone else, has been lured to the wild by the promise of gold. It is gold in all its glory that fuels this tale, though other goods figure, too, some smuggled in by the very phantom bark that has deposited Moody on the island. Catton’s long opening, in which the narrative point of view ping-pongs among these 13 players and more, sets the stage for a chronologically challenging tale in which mystery piles atop mystery. Catton writes assuredly and with just the right level of flourish: “He was thinking of Sook Yongsheng, lying cold on the floor inside—his chin and throat smeared with boot-black, his eyebrows thickened, like a clown.” She blends elements of Victorian adventure tale, ghost story, detective procedural à la The Moonstone and shaggy dog tale to produce a postmodern tale to do Thomas Pynchon or Julio Cortázar proud; there are even echoes of Calvino in the author’s interesting use of both astronomy and astrology. The possibilities for meta cleverness and archness are endless, and the whole business is too smart by half, but Catton seems mostly amused by her concoction, and that’s just right. About the only fault of the book is its unending length: There’s not an ounce of flab in it, but it’s still too much for ordinary mortals to take in.
There’s a lovely payoff after the miles of twists and turns. It’s work getting there but work of a thoroughly pleasant kind.
Is a diamond really forever? So Sullivan (Maine, 2011, etc.) asks in her third novel, which explores the familiar territory of people who can’t quite find the old connections but keep looking for them all the same.
Frances Gerety, a real person whom Sullivan enlists at the outset of her tale, had a daunting task way back in 1947: She had to cook up an advertising tagline for De Beers that would convince Americans to purchase diamond engagement rings, hitherto “considered just absolutely money down the drain.” Sullivan’s story takes off from there, diamonds forming a leitmotif in ingeniously connected stories that span generations. As B. Traven advised in his grand tale of gold, precious objects can cause people to do very bad things; so they do here, enacted by a principal character who, though a bit of a sad sack, does what he can to resist temptation until it overwhelms him. That character speaks to the most modern emanation of maleness: He's been laid off, his wife earning more than he when he does work, regretful because he “had failed to live up to his potential.” But then, in Sullivan’s depiction of the world, every character harbors regrets over roads not taken. Some are stronger than others, and many are devoted to things more than people: One watches Fox News and says hateful things about President Barack Obama in order to be more like her well-to-do husband, adopting his politics “along with his interest in skiing and his love of the Miami Dolphins”; another hints at wanting more children just to be more like the trendy couples on the Upper East Side, as if to say: “We can afford to raise this many children at once in the most expensive city on earth.” Does money ever buy any of them happiness? Not really, but it does score a few carats.
A modern update of The Spoils of Poynton elegant, assured, often moving and with a gentle moral lesson to boot.
Australian novelist Keneally (Schindler’s List, 1982, etc.) turns to his native country in a time of war.
Anticipating the centennial of World War I by a shade, Keneally constructs a Winds of War–like epic concerning figures whom only Ernest Hemingway, among the first-tier writers, got to: military nurses. Naomi and Sally Durance are two sisters who join the Nursing Corps in 1915 and sail off to Gallipoli, where they witness terrible things and form bonds of attachment with the wounded soldiers who suffer them; no one with a sensitive stomach will want to read Keneally’s descriptions of their wounds. Crossing the Mediterranean, they experience the further terror of being torpedoed. Keneally’s set piece, which takes up nearly a tenth of this long but economical book, is extraordinarily moving, if often quite gruesome (“Within the ambit of Lemnos floated a boat with four putrefying dead soldiers and three dead nurses in it”). Since Keneally has established soldiers and nurses alike as characters, the reader experiences their loss. Only on arriving at the Western Front do the sisters part, and there they discover “a dimension of barbarity that had not existed on Gallipoli and had been undreamed of in Archimedes,” namely the terror of gas warfare. There, too, each falls in love, which, this being a war story, cannot end well for the both; it is only the love-story element that does not entirely work in Keneally’s book, though it seems inevitable. For all that, Keneally is a master of character development and period detail, and there are no false notes there.
Fans of Downton Abbey and Gallipoli alike will find much to admire in Keneally’s fast-moving, flawlessly written pages.
"Nobody likes a drunk, soon-to-be-divorced, in-debt, swollen-eyed, single mother farmeress," writes Link (Isadore's Secret: Sin, Murder and Confession in a Northern Michigan Town, 2009, etc.) in her down-to-earth, often humorous memoir of her effort to hold onto her farm and her three sons. With "Mr. Wonderful" (her ex) living just across the street, the author chronicles a year's worth of struggles as sole breadwinner, mother and farmer. In a partially refurbished old farmhouse, Link battled the monthly cycle of bills and the impossible task of feeding three teenage boys on her vegetable garden, one pig and a free year's supply of day-old bread, courtesy of the giant-zucchini contest she won. With the death of her beloved horse, her dreams of one kind of life were replaced with another vision and a loneliness that she filled with work and the need to survive. Whether gardening, stealing firewood or shoveling snow, the foursome eked their way through the lack of heat, food and money, juxtaposing days of intense labor with fun-filled moments like cooking marshmallows indoors in the fireplace or finding the perfect Christmas tree. As winter turned to spring and the threat of losing everything hung over her head, Link was forced to make difficult decisions. But tenacity and perseverance prove life can be good, filled with simple joys such as watching her sons grow into hardworking individuals, eating food straight from the ground and collecting eggs from her own hens. And if romance appears at odd moments, so much the better.
A moving account of how one woman's willpower saved her home and her family.