Love and Marriage

What I read

Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are on their way up. College educated young professionals in Atlanta they are confident and accomplished–Roy, in the business world; Celestial in the arts. Theirs would be a good life, stepping from one rung on the ladder of success to the next.

Their marriage isn’t perfect: there is her fierce independence and his flirtations. Their marriage is young: only eighteen months give or take. But love? They had it. Passion. Check. Commitment. You betcha.

And then Roy and Celestial’s world turned on its head after a night in a small town hotel when Roy, a good Samaritan, is accused of rape, arrested, and convicted. But innocent, no doubt.

What happens to that marriage when the couple is separated? Roy’s sentence is twelve years, but Celestial’s lawyer uncle gets busy appealing the conviction, and, for a time, weekend visits and letters seem to hold the marriage together.

Until it falls apart. Celestial’s hand-sewn dolls–and the artist herself–gain some fame. A woman has needs. Not only for sex, but for companionship and a co-created life. It is in the human soul to want a partner. So Celestial finds herself a married woman engaged to another man.

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones also tells the story of parents who drop the ball and parents who never even caught it. Of parents who play the game with skill. Jones explores love and loss and the glue holds men and women together. Or doesn’t. Hers is a tender perspective on that old proverb that the greatest act of love is letting go.

What I lived

I’ve done this marriage thing twice. It’s complicated. Even more so when the principle players don’t have their shit together and must explore the idea that they might have built a house of cards.

Or not.

When it comes to love and loss, I tend to side with Glennon Doyle’s Love Warrior philosophy. But that requires a whole lot of vulnerability and willingness to trudge through the muck. Sometimes that just ain’t happening for one of the players or another. Sometimes the warrior becomes a conscientious objector.

Like I said, it’s complicated.

Sisters & secrets: The Ninth Hour

What I read

Alice McDermott is one of my favorite writers. I haven’t read all her work, but That Night and Charming Billy are books that have stayed with me. McDermott’s characters are finely drawn and her sense of what it is to be human is spot on.

The Ninth Hour is no exception. It’s a story of women who, while their lives might be restricted by the actions of men, are enlivened by a circle of women. Annie is young, newly married, and pregnant when her husband Jim gasses himself in their Brooklyn tenement. The Church refuses him a Catholic burial and Annie is bereft. The Little Nursing Sisters of the Poor step in. Sister St. Savior and Sister Jeanne prepare Jim’s body and sit vigil with Annie. They see to the burial in an unmarked grave. And they put Annie to work in the convent laundry with Sister Illuminata, a demanding taskmaster who comes to care for Annie in her gruff way.

Annie’s life–and, in turn, her daughter Sally’s–is as full as life can be for a poor widow and orphan in the early years of the twentieth century, and most of that can be attributed to the safe harbor the nuns provided. But as her years of mothering Sally come to an end, Annie feels drawn to the convent’s milkman Mr. Costello. She misses the companionship of a man. Sally, meanwhile, contemplates becoming a postulant and in her training begins to care for Mrs. Costello, his invalid wife, in their home. The story opens with the cover up of Jim’s suicide–and from there the secrets snowball.

The Ninth Hour is a story about the weight of secrets and how our lives often pivot on a single word left unsaid or an act concealed. Deceit can throw a shadow over an otherwise happy life–but it is for each of us to decide what good might be possible should what was hidden come into the light.

What I lived

I must admit I’m always a little shy around Catholic sisters. As a convert I don’t have the stories so many cradle Catholics revel in telling–there were no sisters rapping knuckles or throwing chalkboard erasers in my Protestant upbringing. But I also don’t have a sense of familiarity and ease around them, either. They are a bit mysterious.

Despite the fact that women religious are under the thumb of the Church’s patriarchy, the sisters I’ve met are curiously powerful women. And despite the sacrifices they make as religious, their sense of agency is solid. (One sister I knew would loudly replace “Him” with “God” in the liturgy wherever possible.) Or maybe I’m just judging sisters based on my own biases. I do take weekly yoga classes at the local Dominican Center, and, on occasion attend one program or another the sisters offer–I’ve walked the labyrinth and zoned out with Zentangle; I’ve meditated on the St. Francis sculpture path. Yesterday I took a class on the rosary. I admire the Dominican sisters’ spirituality and commitment to social justice. But it’s stories like The Ninth Hour that help me understand these strong women.

Looking forward, turning back: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

What I read

I’ve been glancing over Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk for over a year now. The book’s cover showed up in New Yorker ads for a time and on my Amazon “Customers who bought this also bought” feed and on the digital galley platform to which I belong. I’ve passed it on the “We Recommend” table at the bookstore. Stopped. Read the cover blurbs about New York (I’ve never been), 1930s (not even I am not that old!), walking (on a good day, yes …) and just figured it wasn’t for me.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Kathleen Rooney’s Lillian Boxfish is everything I want in a good character: she is witty, perceptive, brutally honest, open-minded, and loyal. She’s also a bit tetchy. Yes, Lillian does traipse through New York City of an evening–New Year’s Eve, no less–but along the way she stops where she experienced some monumental shift in her eighty-four years. There’s the Back Porch, a corner bar where she stopped over the years for a cocktail and maybe a chit chat with the bartender. Delmonico’s, where she and her husband ate after the court date that finalized their divorce. Madison Square Park, where she lunched as a working gal and wrote her poetry. And Macy’s, where she took the U.S. by storm in the thirties, the much-talked-about copy writer, highest paid girl advertiser in the country with newspaper headlines to prove it. St. Vincent’s Hospital, where she arrived when life spun out-of-control.

And that’s how we learn her story. At each stop Lillian reflects on her life–and also meets someone in the present with whom she can connect. Because even though Lillian is eighty-four-years-old, she is forward thinking. We learn that her early life is by turns tragic and comic; her life now, a dance between reaching out and turning inward. As the night creeps closer to 1985, the reality of having one foot in the past, and one in the future becomes oh-so-poignant, and Lillian welcomes the time when the future is no more, when the end will arrive:

“The future and I are just about even, our quarrel all but resolved. I welcome its coming, and I resolve to be attentive to the details of its arrival. I plan to meet it at the station in my best white dress, violet corsage in hand …”


What I lived

I started Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk at home on my bed, tucked in snug, everything around me dear and familiar. I finished it on an airplane returning from a visit with my son and his family.

And there’s nothing like a visit with one’s distant children to look back over life, even if only the motherhood part. (Although, truth be told, distance provides space to think about any number of life’s conundrums.) I did some things right. And some things pretty crappy. I wanted my family to be just. so. I wanted to get it right. (And you wouldn’t be inaccurate if you read “controlling” there.) I pushed and prodded at times when I should have offered a hug and one more episode of Power Rangers. I was a hard taskmaster when I should have let the dishes wait until morning. I accepted no backtalk when I should have let my chicks puff out their feathers a bit.

Somehow we survived and somehow we are reasonably amiable.

But Lillian’s experience is now in my field of view. Yes, the future is still out there a ways before I meet it, God willing, and knowing that means I have some time. Time to reach out while turning in. Time to figure out how I’ll “meet it at the station”. Time to figure out what I’ll leave in my wake.

Flavia ūüíĖ: Golden Tresses of the Dead (review)

We are expecting a big storm here in the Great Lakes starting midnight Sunday. Forget about the local TV weather forecasters who yell “SNOWMAGEDDON!” at the first flake–even the U.S. National Weather Service in our area says that between tonight and Wednesday we are due for 11″ of snow and the wind chill will be “dangerous if not life threatening”. Holy CO2, Batman!

So knowing I’ll be stuck indoors for at least a couple days, and knowing there’s only so much cookie baking a Weight Watcher can do, and knowing I’m not much of a movie buff … well, I just wish I had seen this weather coming, so I could have saved Alan Bradley’s new Flavia mystery, The Golden Tresses of the Dead for a day tucked onto the couch.

Because nothing says comfort like Flavia. She’s predictable. Good, clean fun. And oh-so-familiar. This is Book #10 in the series and I haven’t missed one. I wrote about #9 here and #8 here and even threw in a little Flavia trivia here. At the end of The Grave’s a Fine & Private Place, Flavia inherits Buckshaw and settles on it as the home of Arthur W. Dogger & Associates–Discreet Investigations. And if Golden Tresses is any indication, there’s a new Flavia on the horizon.

Which makes some sense. Flavia is inching ever closer to her teens, and she’s starting to set aside her impetuous nature in favor of one more focused on attuning her sleuthing skills under the direction of Dogger. (That is Dogger of the Arthur W. Dogger and Flavia of the & Associates.) So while her mind is still sharp–Flavia is first to suspect Miss Truelove, head of St. Tancrid’s Altar Guild, has a hand in the matter and sniffs around her cottage for clues–she is quick to watch Dogger question witnesses and dissemble to the police. We even find Dogger lending a hand in Flavia’s chemical laboratory and the two share a desk.

But don’t be dismayed. Outlandish turn of events still govern Flavia’s world: we have a dismembered finger in a wedding cake, a client found poisoned by African beans in her cottage, a dead rat in the bottom of a travel bag, a ‘senile’ huckster dissembling in a nursing home. And writer Alan Bradley clearly has Flavia’s young cousin Undine stepping in to fill the juvenile shoes Flavia is outgrowing–Undine is loud, intelligent, loves a good joke, and fond of fingerprints. (Sound like another little girl we know knew?)

I suppose I could quibble with some blind alleys in the plot and characters that seem unnecessary. But I treat my series like my friends and I can overlook a number of flaws because there’s that undying devotion. I’m curious to know where the series is going. When he wrote Sweetness¬†at¬†the¬†Bottom¬†of¬†the¬†Pie in 2009, Bradley planned ten Flavia mysteries. And Mr. Bradley is now eighty-one-years-old. So conceivably, this could be the last Flavia book.

But I sure hope it’s not.

Once Upon a River: review

Once Upon a River
Diane Setterfield
Simon & Schuster (December 2018)


It was a dark winter night. The solstice, to be exact. A man, face battered and bloodied, bursts in the door of the Swan Inn holding a small limp body. He collapses. When the village nurse Rita Sunday arrives to care for the man, she first checks the girl. No pulse, skin pale, pupils wide. Rita announces the poor girl dead–drowned in the river Thames, most likely–has her carried to an outbuilding to await burial, then turns her attention to stitching up the man.


No stranger to drowning deaths, Rita senses something is not right when she returns to tend to the child’s body. She tries to put together the circumstances which led to both the man’s injury and the girl’s death.

And then “the corpse opened its eyes”.

From there, Diane Setterfield’s latest novel Once¬†Upon¬†a¬†River is off on a meandering tale of mistaken identity and longing and lost love.

What makes it all the more delicious is that the story pivots around the 600-year-old Swan Inn which is where one goes for storytelling in the village of Radcot. Each evening, villagers gather to listen to tales. Storytellers hone their craft at the Swan, coached and critiqued by other raconteurs, even arguing over ways to enliven the telling of a story. In her own telling, Setterfield mirrors those storytellers of long ago and the lilt of the dialog, the turn of a phrase, the twist and turn of the plot–all lend the novel a kind of fairytale charm.

So we have the story of Mr. Vaughan and his beautiful wife Helena, who mourn their firstborn, a daughter stolen away in the night only two years before. (Can the child possibly be the Vaughan’s lost toddler Amelia?) We learn of Robert Armstrong, a freed slave, and his crippled wife Bess–of their wayward son Robin and the granddaughter they’ve never met. (Or perhaps the girl is the Armstrong’s granddaughter Alice?) And Lily White, the parson’s housekeeper who lives at the edge of the river’s flood plain in the Basketman’s Cottage, frightfully abused by a con-man and swindler and still grieving over the sister she lost those many years ago. (Is it possible that the little girl is Lily’s sister Ann?)

I liked The¬†Thirteenth¬†Tale, but with reservations. We won’t even talk about Bellman¬†and¬†Black. (You can read my review here.) But Diane Setterfield has created magic with River. If you love Gothic, if you’re drawn to enchantment and all that is delightful–it’s not one to miss.