The Forgotten Guide to Happiness: review

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness
Sophie Jenkins
Avon (July 2018)

Lana Green writes romance novels–or at least one, the best seller Love Crazy. Her second romance, Heartbreak, has just gotten a thumbs Forgotten guide to Happinessdown from her publisher. The reason? It’s bleak and bitter, hardly the stuff of romance. Except Lana was just writing what she knew. And what she knew was that the hero of Love Crazy, photographer Marco, had dumped her the heroine Lauren, just as Lana’s photographer boyfriend Mark had dumped her. See where this is going?

And to be sure, for the first few chapters, Sophie Jenkins’ The Forgotten Guide to Happiness is chick lit, plain and simple. Numbing her broken heart in a pub, Lana meets a scruffy IT guy, Jack Buchanan. Over wine and a beer, she confesses she needs to find a new hero for her second book–and Jack sets out to become that hero. Romance ensues.

But, wait a minute … not so fast.

It turns out that Lana is also looking for a job and a place to live, what with the fact that she didn’t get her book advance and all.  And Jack has just the thing. His step-mother suffers from dementia and has become increasingly difficult to manage; social services is threatening to intervene. Add to the mix that his step-mom is none other than the famed feminist writer Nancy Ellis Hall, and Lana quickly agrees to become her companion and caregiver. At first, Lana is convinced that Nancy, who carries around a black notebook and scribbles in it furiously, is still writing. (In fact, Lana even thinks she might be able to help the ailing Nancy write a new book.) And while Lana’s denial is based on her infatuation of the writer Nancy used to be, she soon comes to love the Nancy who is–and that Nancy draped her head with sheets of toilet paper and insisted she was eight years old; she kept a pastry brush in her purse and set the table with clothes pins, a book, and a ruler; that Nancy quoted the bible as her own work and bit the woman who ran the London Literary Society where Lana tutored–Nancy, the woman she cared for and loved, might seem strangely out of touch, but Lana “knew what [Nancy] meant. Language is just a means of communication, and she could communicate and I could understand her.”

It’s got to be a tricky business to write about a character with dementia, but Sheila Jenkins handles the character of Nancy tenderly, lightly, always with compassion–just as Lana does. And I hope that someday, should my aging self need a minder, I encounter someone with just as much love.

And about that love story Lana is trying to write–Does Jack get a role to play? Does Marco return and win back Lana’s love? Will there be heartbreak or more crazy love? I think its fair to say The Forgotten Guide to Happiness has plenty of love (and happiness!) to go around.

I Liked My Life: review

I Liked My Life (NetGalley)
Abby Fabiaschi
St. Martin’s Press
release date: January 31, 2017

Maddy is dead. Jumped, apparently, from the campus library where she worked. Or I should say, volunteered. Maddy’s full time job is was I liked my lifetaking care of her CEO husband Brady and their teenage daughter Eve. She was one of those Super Moms: dinner at the table set with china each night, PTA workaholic and team mom, cheerleader for a husband preoccupied with work. Maddy not only did it all, she did it well. And as if those accomplishments weren’t enough, she was kind, insightful, patient, and understanding. Then why did she jump?

That’s what Brady and Eve are trying to figure out as they make their way through their grief. They are angry and brittle. Short-tempered and quick to blame. Since Brady was so often at work, he and Eve never had to navigate the waters of their relationship. Maddy was always there to plan their time together, to smooth things over. Brady hasn’t ever managed household tasks, let alone a teenager. They eventually come together over Maddy’s journal where they discover that she often felt unloved and unfulfilled–and both realize they had taken her for granted.

Writer Abby Fabiaschi lets dad and daughter each tell their story in alternating chapters. And Maddy also narrates–you see, Maddy is dead, but stuck somewhere between her life on earth and the afterlife. She watches Eve and Brady and even “talks” to them which they somehow feel, if not hear. And once a Super Mom always a Super Mom: Maddy is also trying to choose her husband’s next wife.

I Liked My Life is the tale of a wealthy suburban family with its entitled kids and alcohol and swingers and more alcohol and corporate climbers. It’s not always pretty world. But even though Brady and Eve lost what held them together, they come to realize that Maddy not only liked her life, she loved her life.

Then why did she jump?

Fabiaschi’s first novel is a quick read that kept me turning the page. A perfect weekend read to escape from the busy workaday world.

I liked it.

 

Perfect holiday gift: Where’d you go, Bernadette (review)

Where’d you go, Bernadette
Maria Semple
Little Brown

Chick lit plots and characters are like so many cut-out cookies, after a while. You’ve got the caterpillar career girl, the stuck-up (but oh-so-handsome) object of her affections. The mishaps. Enter heart-of-gold True Love to sweep her off her feet. The same can be said of YA fiction, except you substitute “misfit” for “career” and throw in some parent angst and maybe a little bullying. Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette defies both categories. It could be chick lit, could be YA–but what I’m certain of is that the story is inventive and fun. The New York Times called it “divinely funny”, John Green, “A moving, smart page-turner,” and both were spot-on. where'd you go Bernadette

Bernadette, an LA transplant living in Seattle, was once America’s girl-architect phenom. Now she’s all but agoraphobic, living in an historic home for wayward girls she’s tried to thought about making into a home for her family. Bernadette has been hiding from the world for twenty years and thinks she likes it that way. (Her feuds with the stay-at-home moms at her daughter’s exclusive school and her rage at all things Seattle might lead the reader to come to another conclusion about her happiness, however.) Daughter Bee was dearly conceived and barely survived a life-threatening heart defect at birth; her first few years were touch and go. Bee is a gifted young woman with a heart of gold and a wit that’s sharp; she has soared through her first eight years of school and is on her way to Choate. Dad and husband Elgin Fox is a whiz at Microsoft and rarely at home. (If Semple is to be believed, I did learn that the Microsoft culture is creepy.)

There is conflict aplenty in Where’d you go. A battle royale with a neighbor–actually make that two neighbors; Bernadette has issues with people. An admin (that’s an administrative assistant in Microsoft speak) who’s also a home-wrecker. A house that has boarded off rooms and blackberry vines growing up through the floorboards. Top it all off with a trip to Antarctica that no one in the family really wants to take except Bee. Oh, and did I mention Bernadette that does her shopping and appointment making via a virtual assistant from Delhi, India named Manjula?

Now these unconventional characters also deal with some pretty serious matters and when Bernadette disappears (that’s the “where’d you go” part) I was a bit worried that the novel would take a U-turn and end up in A Lesson For Modern Times territory.

But no worries. It’s madcap. It’s zany. And you’ll smile the whole way through this read, I guarantee.

Vinegar Girl: review

Vinegar Girl (NetGalley)
Anne Tyler
Hogarth/Crown Publishing

vinegar girl I’m not one for modern novels that piggy back on a great work of literature. Chances are I’ve already read the classic, so the broad strokes of the contemporary retelling seem forced. And I tend to nitpick, as well: “Well, that didn’t happen in The Great Classic” or “Famous Classic Character would never say such a thing!” So the much acclaimed A Thousand Acres (King Lear) by Jane Smiley? I skimmed it. (I know, I know it won the Pulitzer …) I really don’t see Pride and Prejudice in Bridget Jones’s Diary, either. And while I did enjoy The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, once Edgar unravels his uncle Claude (hah!) and runs away, it was so over-the-top Hamlet, that the novel was spoiled for me.

So I wasn’t prepared to like Anne Tyler’s latest novel The Vinegar Girl, which is a retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. But here’s the deal. I’ve never read The Taming of the Shrew, so I had nothing to compare it to and Tyler’s story held up well enough on its own.

Kate Batista is stuck in a dead end job and still living at home. She’s 30, works in a preschool, and doesn’t even like kids. Her widowed dad is a stereotypical absent-minded scientist and her sixteen-year-old sister is a stereotypical teenager. Kate keeps house for them both and is either the glue that holds the family together or the door mat. Probably both. Until her dad decides he can kill two birds with one stone: marry off Kate and keep his Russian research assistant in the U.S. 

Kate resists and then she doesn’t. Because this just might be her ticket out of the house. Pyotr Cherbokov is at times charming, but most often rude and ill-mannered, at least by American standards. Will she go through with the marriage or not?

Anne Tyler’s twentieth novel doesn’t have the keen insight or the charming absurdity that her early novels had. Nor did her last, A Spool of Blue Thread which I read last year and liked well enough (link). But it’s a sweet story, well-told–and since it’s based on one of Shakespeare’s comedies, you know it ends well for our heroine.

And what’s not to like about happily ever after?

Canterbury Sisters (review)

The Canterbury Sisters
Kim Wright
Simon & Schuster

canterbury sistersChick lit for women of a certain age–it’s difficult to come by. Most of the chick lit I’ve read falls into the twenty-something-my-boyfriend-left-me or the twenty-something-I’ll-never-find-Mr.-Right category. And if you’ve read my last post (link) you understand that I’ve been there and done that.

But every once in a while I need that light and breezy read, something to make me smile and believe in falling in love again.

Kim Wright’s Canterbury Sisters was it. Che Milan’s mother passed away after fighting a horrendous battle with cancer. When her ashes are delivered, Che finds this note: “…per our agreement, you must now take me to Canterbury. Do it, Che. Take me there. Even if you’re busy. Especially if you’re busy. It’s never too late for healing.”  Now Che had agreed, in the early stages of her mother’s illness, to make the Canterbury pilgrimage with her. But the end had come too quickly for the two to set out on the trail and receive a blessing for healing in the cathedral.

Spurred by a loss of her own (which is quintessentially chick-lit-ish!) Che throws caution to the wind and almost immediately hops on a plane to England to join a group of women who are just about to embark on the pilgrimage.

Now Che doesn’t particularly relish the intimacy that such a trip implies. She’s a no-nonsense professional, a wine critic whose reviews are both sought after and feared. Heart-to-hearts with a BFF and touchy-feely girl talk just isn’t her thing. But her mom requested it from the grave, and who is she to deny such a demand?

At their initial meeting, the tour leader Tess suggests that maybe the group wants to travel like Chaucer’s pilgrim’s did–each telling their tales “to see who could best articulate the nature of true love”. The women draw cards to determine the order of the stories and as quick as you can say “Once upon a time” they are off and running walking the sixty miles to Canterbury.

So we hear each of their stories, from Becca’s adolescent love song to seventy-three-year-old Silvia’s  tale of love (and memory) lost and found. Some of the women have deceived themselves in matters of the heart and others followed their hearts. Some have had to come to terms with their own shortcomings, others the betrayal of their lovers. But the tales, and more importantly the women, are far from what Che expected.

Che also, we suspect, begins to discover that true love is also far from what she expected. And that the healing she was seeking just might have been her own.