Thursday, June 30, 2011

THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ by Anne Enright (2011) McClelland & Stewart, 230 pages

Having adored Enright's Booker Prize-winning THE GATHERING, I knew I'd be predisposed to like THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ. What I did not expect was to be startled at every turn by the visceral quality of her prose. I cannot remember the last time I was so physically and emotionally moved by a book. And, that response is not predicated on a first reading either, because as I was skimming back through its pages to select quotations for this post, I felt the same flutter in my stomach--a palpable yearning.

Set in a suburb of contemporary Dublin, THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ examines "the irreparable slip into longing that can change the course of our lives." In it, thirty-four-year-old Gina Moynihan tells us of her affair with "the love of her life," Sean Vallely, whom she met three years earlier, though saw for the first time several years before that at a garden party hosted by her sister Fiona. Recalling her initial awareness of Sean, she notes, "it's like I have to pull the whole planet around in my head to get to this garden, and this part of the afternoon and to this man, who is the stranger I sleep beside now." Gina holds you in the hollow of her hand as you bear mute witness to all of their encounters and makes you complicit as "you catch a stranger's eye, for a moment too long, and then you look away" and, like Gina, for the moment you are "just breathing out."

While they arrange their furtive and exciting trysts, both Gina and Sean carry on their married relationships with their spouses Conor and Aileen. About Conor, who remains intentionally a nebulous, essentially benign presence in the narrative, Gina admits, "We knew each other. Our real life was in some shared head space; our bodies were the places we used to play. Maybe that's what lovers should be--not these besotted, fuck-witted strangers that are myself and Sean, these actors in a bare room." Yet, in the end, Gina "ended up...not believing a single thing [Conor] did; thinking it was all gesture and expostulation, it was all air."

In losing herself to love and lust, Gina observes, "it was like I had gone to the edges of myself, and what was in the centre was anyone's guess," while Sean thrived on jealousy: "it was his comfort and company--call it ambition; it was his protection from the night." And yet. Even the idea of not being together through courting the notion of walking away from Sean is too much for her: "The pain I felt was so sudden and unexpected, it was like being shot. I looked down the length of myself, as if to share the news with my body, or to check that it was all still there."

In the beginning and the end it's all about a child: Sean's daughter Evie. After both of them have left their spouses and Gina holds Sean, "in the darkness" and tells him that life is about failure, "it has failure built in," Enright whips you back emotionally to the opening line of the novel: "If it hadn't been for the child then none of this might have happened, but the fact that a child was involved made everything that much harder to forgive." Gina is capable of forgiving Sean, but I'm not so sure she is capable of forgiving herself. That open-ended ambiguity at the end of her tale where Gina realizes "whether her father stays with me or goes, I will lose this girl," is the true heartbreak of THE FORGOTTEN WALTZ.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

SO MUCH PRETTY by Cara Hoffman (2011) Simon & Schuster, 287 pages

Although the present of this gripping and stunning tale is April 2009, the book moves back and forth from 1992 through 2015 over which you learn about events that have shaped the main players: intrepid investigative journalist Stacey Flynn; trained physicians Claire and Gene Piper; their gifted teenaged daughter Alice, "a riddle, a koan"; and, the sweet, family-oriented late bloomer Wendy White.

By using a variety of prose styles from copies of student essays to redacted oral interviews to personal letters to a third-person omniscient narrator, Hoffman drives the plot forward as it intentionally disorients the reader, mirroring most of the characters' experience with the events of early Spring 2009 in a small upstate New York community.

In the Prologue, you realize that the search underway for a missing young woman is problematic, for she could be "someone with blue or maybe brown or green eyes. She could be five foot six or five-eight. Her hair could also be red, could be an unnatural colour like pink or white." And, the narrator suggests, "as we are well aware, it is easy for a woman who fits this description to just disappear."

After "classic country girl" Wendy White doesn't return home one night, the entire town is enlisted to try to find her. They do side-by-side sweeps across fields, "holding hands over the blunt and broken stalks of harvested corn sticking up from the frozen ground." Fifteen year old Alice Piper wonders if this social impulse is "an example of ethical care for a resident of our town...part of the greater good."

Five months later, Wendy's corpse is discovered, dumped at the edge of the woods and reporter Stacey Flynn chillingly observes, "White's body, as it turned out, was put to use for months before being found." Flynn shares her observations with Alice, who she has profiled many times before for the Haeden paper, one of the few good news stories in a town rife with problems including widespread unemployment and poverty both literal and spiritual. Both Flynn and Alice know in their bones that whoever murdered Wendy was not a drifter as so many of the locals pretend to believe, but someone in their midst, a longstanding member of the Haeden community.

As Hoffman unfurls detail after shocking detail, be prepared to question your own moral courage. What would you be prepared to risk for a better life for yourself and for others?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

SAVING CEE CEE HONEYCUTT by Beth Hoffman (2010) Viking Penguin, 306 pages

Cecilia (Cee Cee) Honeycutt is a twelve-year-old single child saddled with the responsibility of a mentally ill mother, a former beauty pageant queen who stomps about their Ohio town tarted up in bright lipstick and tired taffeta, her prize-winning tiara askew. While her father is on the road, Cee Cee luckily has her elderly neighbour Mrs. Odell to rely on for a dose of normalcy in her daily life. It's Mrs. Odell who provides Cee Cee's school lunch and offers up nuggets of reassuring wisdom when Cee Cee is about to crack from the worrisome burden that her mother has become. She tells Cee Cee, "When a chapter of your Life Book is complete, your spirit knows it's time to turn the page so a new chapter can begin. Even when you're scared or think you are not ready, your spirit knows you are."

One day in 1967, "the Happy Cow Ice Cream truck came over a crest in the road and hit Momma so hard she was knocked clean out of her geranium-red satin shoes." The death of Camille Sugarbaker Honeycutt means that Cee Cee feels for the first time, "the flutter of a page turn deep within... as a chapter in [her] Life Book came to a close." Soon after, Cee Cee's great aunt Tallulah Caldwell (aka Tootie) arrives to spirit her away to a new life in Savannah to "a big ole house with plenty of room." But, it's Aunt Tootie's invitation, "I'd sure love to have you" that seals the deal. For Cee Cee "Those six simple words...filled the room with light."

They drive home to Savannah in a '48 Packard with a hood ornament called Delilah and therein begins Cee Cee's transition to a life among women brimming with Southern warmth and charm. With Cee Cee you'll meet Miz Goodpepper who has a claw-footed bathtub in which she soaks under the stars (in the company of Louie, a prurient peacock), Oletta, Aunt Tootie's long-serving cook and Cee Cee's sage companion on her grief journey, and "the great gaping vagina otherwise known as Violene Hobbs" who murdered a magnolia tree.

In the months that Cee Cee spends with these succulent wild women, she comes to realize that "Momma had left this world and set herself free, and in doing so, she had set me free too." In the hours that I spent inside the minds of Beth Hoffman's richly created characters between the pages of SAVING CEE CEE HONEYCUTT, I came to yearn for the balm of Southern hospitality and felt, more than just a little, saved by their company .

THE SINGER'S GUN by Emily Mandel (2010) Unbridled Books, 285 pages

Emily Mandel beguiled me with her debut novel LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL, so I was delighted to pick up a copy of THE SINGER'S GUN, a story rife with betrayal, half-told truths and narrative drive that will give you whiplash.

Protagonist Anton Waker finally gets married to his reticent long time cellist-playing fiancee Sophie. Though raised by criminal parents about whom he never doubted their abiding love, Anton has attempted to set his work life straight by abandoning the family business and working as a middle manager for an insurance company in New York. However, Agent Broden has been tailing Anton and his cousin Aria for years and his luck is just about to run out.

While honeymooning with Sophie on the island of Ischia (and not wanting to involve her in the professional trouble that he feels is coming and his due), Anton suggests that they "should be apart for a while, not a long while, just maybe a couple of weeks." Sophie responds as you'd hope she would by hailing a taxi and claiming, "I carry my passport in my handbag and you can dispose of my luggage as you see fit."

Meanwhile, back in Manhattan, Anton's former secretary Elena, "who he'd secretly been in love with since he'd met her under criminal circumstances two and a half years earlier," is dodging Agent Broden's questions that just might implicate her in Anton's previously nefarious life. That's not the only threat that Anton faces, though. His insistent former business partner Aria (who also happens to be his first cousin) has involved him in a final business deal that seems simple enough on the surface (give a marked envelope to a stranger), but will have an unanticipated ripple effect on the rest of his life.

Mandel is an intelligent and convincing writer whose clean prose style will make you understand how each well placed word matters.

MAINE by J. Courtney Sullivan, from the ARC (June 2011), from A.A. Knopf, 384 pages

The epigraph to MAINE is the novel's emotional touchstone: "Just do everything we didn't do and you will be perfectly safe." ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald to his daughter.

Such a wistful sentiment sets you up for all that is to come: spilled wine and secrets; heartache; love as hard as a stone. Over the course of one summer you will meet the Kelleher women: octogenarian matriarch Alice, her middle-aged black sheep daughter Kathleen, Kathleen's thirty-something writer daughter Maggie and Alice's miniature house obsessed daughter-in-law Ann Marie.

The novel opens with Alice furtively packing up bits and pieces of her summer home in preparation for its eventual gift to her local parish, St. Michael's by the sea, currently overseen by the charming and handsome Father Donnelly who reminds her "of crooners from the fifties." Plus, he "had chosen a vocation from another time and was more thoughtful in a way she didn't know young people could be anymore." Alice slips easily in and out of time, remembering the summer her husband Daniel won the property on a bet in 1945, and how the first time she saw it, she gasped: "The road was from a fairy tale, a long stretch of sand inside a tunnel of lush pine trees." Romantic that he was, Daniel "carved a shamrock into the soft trunk of a birch tree" and "added the letters A.H." for "Alice's. House." Haunted by a traumatic loss in her past, Alice is tricked into magically thinking that her beloved sister Mary would "turn the corner at any moment." Mary's appearance, however, is never to be, save through Alice's memory and the cruel prompting of her then teenish daughter Kathleen.

The MAINE property is replete with family history of children and grandchildren and Alice still feels sentimental about the old cottage, "with its familiar details, and stories from their past tucked inside each cupboard and under every bed....This was where Clare had learned to walk, and Patrick had broken his arm one summer, trying to jump off the roof of the screen porch and fly like Superman....Where she and Daniel had taken countless strolls to look at the stars, hand in hand, not a word spoken." Like Alice, I have been lucky enough to be going to cottage country in the Muskokas all of my life. There, on a property purchased by my paternal grandparents in the fifties, my family has shared both celebration and heartache. Just like the fictional Kellehers.

My parents became engaged at the dock in 1962 and traded stolen kisses in the early days of their courtship. As children we were sent into the bush to pick wild blueberries by our Irish grandfather, toting the pot used to boil corn, when he was fed up with our whining for one more game of Euchre, Old Maid or Rumoli. As teenagers, David, Denise and I learned how to drive the little tin boat, swam across to the island to wear ourselves out before sleep, and hosted countless friends around makeshift campfires out on the slab of Canadian Shield where more often than not David strummed his guitar and sang his way through Neil Young, David Wilcox, Cat Stevens, Blue Rodeo and Garth Brooks. And, it was on that lake that David died in a boat crash, just after his 25th birthday, and the geography took on new, resonant meaning for those of us left behind.

As I was thumbing my way through MAINE, I felt an especial kinship to many of the characters, but particularly to the summer place those generations of Kellehers inhabit. A place that insists that truths be told, no matter how difficult they may be to hear. And, I recognized in Alice's less judgmental response to her granddaughter Maggie's predicament, my own grandmother's open-hearted acceptance of my own follies that I carry with me long after she's gone.

In J. Courtney Sullivan's MAINE, in spite of the sibling rivalry and ever-present pulse of Catholic guilt, abiding, irrational love endures. This book is one of THE reads of the summer of 2011. Treat yourself to a copy.

Friday, June 03, 2011

PICTURES OF YOU by Caroline Leavitt (2010) Algonquin Books, 323 pages

The older I get, the more I realize the truth in these words from Tennessee Williams' play A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE: "you can always depend on the kindness of strangers." This adage is the force that drives through the pages of NY Times bestselling novelist Caroline Leavitt's PICTURES OF YOU in which two women, April and Isabelle, are running away from their marriages.

I was hooked from the opening snapshot: "There's a hornet in the car. Isabelle hears a buzz and then feels a brush of wing against her cheek. A grape-size electric motor sings past her right ear." In that moment, Leavitt had me sitting in the car beside Isabelle, ducking and swatting a stinging insect I could hear. That's the magic of well-written fiction.

With the fog that rolls in and makes it impossible to see anything beyond the car's hood coupled with the distraction of the hornet, it is no surprise that Isabelle crashes the car, killing a stranger. What is surprising, though, is how Leavitt negotiates an emotional journey for Isabelle that involves her in the lives of the accident's surviving victims, widower Charlie and his son Sam.

What most impressed me about this book was Leavitt's ability to make the complicated grief that emerges from an accidental death ring true. And, we witness that grief as Charlie navigates a life of "after" with Sam just as Sam, like most kids, yearns to be treated by his peers as he always had been. Charlie comes to realize that the secret is "You never got over what you lost. You always carried it with you, stitched to you like Peter Pan's shadow...the truth was, you wanted to remember it always."

When a hand addressed envelope arrives for his dead wife, Charlie begins to realize that the life they had shared as a married couple was not what it had seemed. While Charlie is trying to solve the mystery that April was, Isabelle focuses on finding ways to help Sam both face his grief and nurture an artistic life through photography. Facing her own survivor's guilt, Isabelle learns to drive again. Her instructor tells her "People who are frightened, who don't know where they're going, they're my best students."

So utterly convincing is Leavitt's tale that you will believe in the flesh and blood existence of Charlie, Isabelle and Sam and find yourself rooting for all three of them as they navigate the messy reality of life after accidental death and come face-to-face with daring to hope for forgiveness for the unforgivable.