Saturday, May 23, 2009

So Noone Told You Life Was Going to be This Way...

It seems like the last few books I've read have centered around the power for friendship as opposed to that of romantic love. Certainly, The Space Between Us, A Thousand Splendid Suns, and Snowflower and the Secret Fan, have all focused on the relationships between women as they navigate their way through fairly hostile male-dominated societies. Even These Granite Islands and Love Walked In are far more about the dynamics between the female characters than they are about the love affairs out the outskirts of the plot lines.

So I guess I'm not surprised that I was drawn to both Belong To Me, by Marisa de los Santos and Wednesday Sisters, by Meg Waite Clayton. Each follows the lives and interactions of a main character and those closest to her---while each main character is married and has a homelife with it's own challenges, the writers in each case seem more drawn to the relationships her main character forges with the women around her.

Belong To Me is the continuation of Santos' Love Walked In. This time, Cornelia Brown has left the big city to make a home in the suburbs with her husband. I could truly relate to Cornelia's reluctance to leave the energy and diversity of her urban Philadelphia for the quiet, seemingly fondant-icing perfection of the 'burbs. I've always struggled with those separate parts of my pscyhe---the thrill and the feeling of being a part of something huge and vital that comes from living in a bustling urban environment versus the security, comfort and sense of community that comes from living in a suburb where neighbors stop to chat on the sidewalks and you can let your kids play in the backyard because...well, you actually have a backyard.

Cornelia is faced with restocking her supply of friends once she makes her way into the new neighborhood and finds that what lies behind the perfectly manicured lawns of her neighbors is not quite as sweet and charming as she had initially thought.

Piper, Elizabeth and Lake are the women of Cornelia's neighborhood--one, a total uptight snoot of a woman (think Bree Van de Camp from Desperate Housewives, but with a bit more spit and vinegar), one dying of cancer and the other an enigma who has a secret that, while Cornelia doesn't know it, threatens her happiness.

I really enjoyed this book. Cornelia is so likeable as a main character and Santos is marvelous at weaving separate story lines together to make a cohesive experience that her books tend to play like a movie in my mind, much more so than many of the other books I've read.

I did think the twist in this book was actually pretty superfluous, given that it turned the focus away from Cornelia and the women back to the relationship between her and her husband. I found that I wasn't all that interested in him. I wanted to read more about the friends---in particular Piper who, ironically enough, initially made my skin crawl.

Similarly, The Wednesday Sisters are all married woman with families of some form of their own. But I really didn't care so much about the families any farther than that sometimes their actions impacted the relationships of the women who comprised the writing group. It was the closeness and emotional intimacy between the women, and not what their kids are like or what their husband do (although this is all they really think to talk about initially), that made this book so powerful to me.

Meeting by chance at a local park in the late 1960's, these young mothers find a common connection through their writing. They establish a Wednesday morning "meeting" at the park while their kids play, to write and share their writing with one another. It is through their writing (sometimes stories, drafts of novels, just journal entries) that these five women come to know each other's greatest dreams, heartbreaks and fears.

Set against the backdrop of both the women's liberation movement and the civil rights movement, the main character, Frankie, shows us how the paradigm shift of our country's consciousness impacted the lives of these women and challenged their own, sometimes shameful, beliefs.

I love that Clayton connected her characters to great literary works of the past--each one of them bringing a favorite author, character or classic piece of literature to the table with them as an inspiration.

I found the book touching and inspiring, reminding me of my own love of writing and the one or two friends who've shared that love with me for decades.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Oh, look! A blog...

Yes, I'm still here. And, I've been reading! Let's see if I can remember everything I've read since I last posted (in no particular order)....

First, I discovered Chris Bohjalian. Not sure how I managed to miss him before, but I picked up my first book by him, Midwives, in March, and now my goal is to not overdose on him a la Jodi Picoult. He's written so many books that I've never read that I'm afraid I'll over-saturate my brain with Bohjalian and end up feeling "meh" about is writing.

Midwives chronicles the story of Sybil Danforth, a midwife who, after years of assisting with successful home births, is present at a birth where the mother dies. She is accused of involuntary manslaughter and sent to trial. Narrated years later by her daughter who was 14 years old at the time of the trial (and who, in her adult life, is an obstetrician), the novel weaves an incredible mix of suspense, character development, and ethical dilemma (there's a constant sense, to me, of "what would YOU have done?" in the narrative) into a captivating story.

Over a year ago, I read The Birth House, and was disappointed because it didn't go deeply enough into the challenges of midwifery and the community that centers around childbirth in the home, surrounded by the proverbial village as opposed to the masked, gloved OB/surgeon. Bohjalian's book finally gave me the story I had been wanting to read way back then in The Birth House.

Before You Know Kindness was equally as captivating. Spencer McCullough, a public relations executive for FERAL, a PETA-esque animal rights group, is shot in the shoulder, by his daughter, using his brother-in-law's gun. It's an accident. Right?

The family is pushed to its limits as one branch of the family is pitted against the other by FERAL, which uses McCullough's shooting as an excuse to sue the gun company involved. Through the characters, the ideal of animal activist vegan faces off with the idea of sport hunter. In the same way that Tom Perrotta's The Abstinance Teacher illustrated how the flaws of extremist belief, Before You Know Kindness follows a family on a journey to reconcile their philosophical differences while loyalties and egos are stretched to the limit.

Another writer I'd not found before. Marisa De Los Santos tells the story of Cornelia, a quirky, tiny urbanite, obsessed with old movies and finding love. This character is impossible not to fall in love with. Looking for her own Jimmy Stewart (unless she can find Carey Grant), she is woo'd by Martin Grace, who walks into her little Philadelphia cafe one day and sweeps her off her feet. At least for a time...

This is also the story of Clare Hobbes, an 11-year old girl, whose mother is smack-dab in the middle of one hell of a nervous breakdown, leaving Clare to fend for herself. For months, Clare tries to hold things together so people don't her mother is falling apart at the seams. The one person she tries to enlist help from, her estranged father, essentially pats Clare on the head and tells her to run along. So when her mother leaves her on the side of the road, Clare is forced to find a way to make sense of her life.

The way in which these two characters' lives intertwine is just great writing. Both characters are fleshed out so thoroughly, I could almost touch them. I loved the way the book made me consider my connections to other people and how we are essentially a giant network of lives, ready to collide at any time, and change the course of our world's forever.

I am currently reading the second book in this series, Belong To Me. When I picked it up, I didn't realize it was a continuation of Cornelia's life. And? Loving it so far.

Oh, I was so bummed when I finished this book. Quite literally, I was sobbing at the end. Told in flashback, by a dying mother to her already elderly son, These Granite Islands chronicles the life, and specifically one summer of Isobel. A somewhat ambivalent wife and mother, Isobel stays behind in town one summer while her husband takes her sons out to an island camp.

It is during this summer that Isobel meets Cathryn, a mysterious, moody, married urban woman, who is carrying on an affair with Jack, a forest ranger. Scandalized by the affair, but drawn in by Cathryn's warmth and candor, Isobel becomes Cathryn's closest friend and accomplice in hiding the affair from Cathryn's husband.

When the lovers disappear, as if into thin air, Isobel is left contemplating not only the woman she considered to be her best friend, but also her own life and the choices she's made in her life.

Like the History of Love, this is the type of book I need to read again. The first read was just me plowing through it, in love with Isobel and the characters around her.

I finished the book one night after having lied down with my 3 year old son to help him fall back to sleep. As I listened to Ethan breathing next to me, I thought of this woman, 60 years after this fateful summer, at the end of her life, telling her story to the only of her children to survive her, and I was just overcome with emotion. Our lives are so brief, and pass so quickly. All of our relationships, from those that come and go to those that bind through blood, make us who we are. Who knows what we will see when we get to the end of our own lives and look back. What will we remember? Who will be there next to us? What stories from our lives will be important enough to share when we get to that point? Yeah, I didn't sleep a whole lot that night. But it was worth it.

After having seen "Slumdog Millionaire", I became one of eleventy billion people to be horrified by the slums of Mumbai and went in search of a novel that might help me understand the social make-up of a society that allows so many of it's people to live in such horrendous poverty and squalor. What I found was a story of two women, separated by class, pride and the weight of societal expectation.

Bhima is Sera's servant. They are as close to "friends" as they could possibly be, given that Bhima inhabits the slums and Sera is a rich widow. Sera cannot help but flinch if Bhima touches her, but she feels badly for it.

The novel takes us back through both Bhima's and Sera's lives, their disappointments with love, their search for meaning in their lives--in both cases, the lives of their children. The parallels between two women in such different positions in life was staggering, but so was, as the title suggests, the space between them.

As a bleeding heart fan of the underdog, I found it much easier to feel for Bhima, even though Sera's story was also compelling. What I loved about this novel was it's developing theme that privilege and money does not equal inner strength.

I'm looking forward to reading more of this author's books as well.