Too close to home: Evensong (review)

Evensong (NetGalley)
Kate Southwood
G.W. Norton

evensong by Kate SouthwoodLast December my money market company sent me a cheery email reminding me to file for a required distribution–they also told me my estimated life expectancy was 27.5 years. Merry Christmas to you, too, Fidelity!

Still, as I approach the end of another decade, I find myself looking back on the years and wondering. And I’ve got a lot to wonder about. My children, for instance. Miscarriage. Divorce. My difficult father. His death. Addiction. Estrangement. Don’t get me wrong–there have been more moments of joy than not. Days on the front steps watching the kids play in the sprinkler. Meeting the love of my life. Sitting in a candlelit cathedral every Sunday. Camp fires and beach days.

It’s those difficult times, however, that have pushed and prodded me to snap out of any Pollyanna daydreams and get on to the business of reorganizing and rearranging my life. The process is painful … and bittersweet.

The main character in Kate Southwood’s new novel, Maggie Doud, is right there with me. She’s in the hospital after a heart attack and must come to terms with her frailty, the approaching end of her life, and the relationship she has with her daughters Joanne and Lee. Adults now, their relationship is fraught with the resentment and rejection. The girls compete fiercely for their mother’s love–Joanne by being the best and brightest, Lee by being conciliatory. Maggie sees her daughters “circling each other to work out everything they need to know before I die … because they still haven’t realized that I’ve been circling myself all these years, trying and failing to be brave, trying to riddle out the truth of it and portion out the blame in all the places it should be.”

As so often is the case in women’s lives, they can trace the source of their brokenness to a cruel and calculating husband and father. Maggie’s husband Garfield was handsome and successful, but also bellicose and controlling. Maggie forever wondered why he had chosen her–a quiet, even timid, girl who had always lived in the shadow of her more beautiful and outgoing sister Estelle. (But of course any woman who has experienced a controlling husband knows they often target those of us who are young and shy because we’re that much easier to manipulate.) Garfield left Maggie a widow when the girls were teenagers. And although his death freed them from his demands, his presence shadowed them for the rest of their lives.

As she recovers at home cared for by her granddaughter Melissa, Maggie comes to terms with her relationship to her daughters and tries to make sense of her life with Garfield. As Melissa adjusts Maggie’s pillows, tempts her with food, and massages her feet with Jergens, Maggie thinks, “I want to tell her not to be afraid. That her life will change, that everything will change and change again and it will seem sometimes that she is adrift, but she won’t be.”

Her days finally moored in the home she loves, Maggie Doud reconciles her past–and that blame she’s been riddling out is finally put to rest.

I only hope I’m as lucky.

Going home again: The Last Days of Cafe Leila (review)

The Last Days of Cafe Leila (NetGalley)
Donia Bijan
Algonquin Books

When I was in high school, I read Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again in junior English. I don’t remember much about the novel except for its melancholy. And I’m guessing I’d appreciate the novel much more now that I’ve lived a few lives myself. But the title has always stayed with me, and I thought of it immediately after turning the last page of Donia Bijan’s beautiful novel The Last Days of Cafe Leila.

Set in Tehran, Iran the novel follows the Yadegar family from the 1930s through the revolution and on to present day. Zod inherits Cafe Leila from his parents and it is the social center for his Tehran neighborhood and beyond. (Zod also inherits a wife from his brother, but that is another story.) The food is exquisite, the staff warm, and all are welcome. The revolution in 1979 changed life in Tehran. Sensing impending danger, Zod sent his two children Noor and Mehrdad to the United States to attend university. Thirty years pass before Noor returns home, impelled by a crisis–her husband’s infidelity–and dragging along her teenage daughter Lily.

Noor wraps herself in the comfort of her childhood memories as she helps run the cafe and tends to Zod whose health is failing.  The food, her childhood bedroom, her beloved nanny all ground her again–and eventually transform her relationship with Lily. And perhaps because of the solace Noor finds in the Cafe Leila, she decides to stay.

Except you can’t go home again.

Too much has changed, and try as she might, Noor can’t deny her American sensibilities. How else to explain her outrage at the acid attack on a young girl Lily befriends? Or the assertiveness that turns dangerous when she is stopped by the police? Noor might very well love her childhood home, but she surely can’t live there any more. The country has changed; she has changed.

And of course there is the food. The novel is, after all, set in a cafe, so there is no shortage of exotic smells and spices and Persian dishes. We have this: Zod “filled the pockets [of featherlight brioche] not just with beef and onions, but peach jam, saffron rice pudding …” And this: “He soaked prunes and took out meaty shanks to roast with onion for plum soup. he shaped chickpea patties, strained yogurt, and stirred quince custard.” Amber Darjeeling tea stirred with honey. Pomegranate juice.

The Last Days of Cafe Leila is a beautifully written love letter, evocative and moving–a story that transports the reader to a time and place that won’t soon be forgotten.

Himself: review

Himself (NetGalley)
Jess Kidd
St. Martin’s Press
release date: March 14, 2017

himselfJess Kidd’s first novel Himself is a poignant and darkly funny story about a Mahony, a n’er-do-well Dubliner, who travels clear across the island to the idyllic village of Mulderrig to discover what happened to the mammy who (apparently) abandoned him on the steps of an orphanage when he was still a babe in arms and left without a trace. When an aged nun dies she leaves behind an envelope for Mahony with a photo of his mom Orla holding baby Francis–his given name. On the back is penciled “Know that your mammy loved you.”

But the quaint village, like small towns all over the world, is a place of rumors and lies and cover-ups. Mulderrig isn’t as innocent as it appears and Mahony soon suspects that his mother, rather than abandoning him, was killed. As Mahony sets about asking questions about Orla, he is greeted with disdain or curiosity, at best, and at worst, hostility. Orla was not a welcomed or respected member of the town. She was the “wild bad girl of the village” with a missing pappy and an drunk mam. By the time she was a teen, the wayward Orla had to survive using whatever means she could. And then there was her baby.

Mahony has the gift of second sight, and Kidd’s description of the world he sees is magical. Ghosts frolic on the lawn, play cards in the parlor, skip through the woods, and drift up to sit on the roof–and the author makes it seem so commonplace. The reader realizes about halfway through the novel, though, that those ghosts are clues. (Clues, I must admit, that this reader couldn’t unravel until the last few pages.)

Add to the other-worldliness of the story living characters who are endearing–or despicable. There’s Mrs. Cauley, the eccentric elderly actress who immediately takes Mahony under her wing; her winsome housekeeper and companion Shauna, who falls quickly under Mahony’s spell. There is a jolly barkeep, an unlikable priest, a grieving young mother, a mysterious recluse …

And darker forces are at work when someone first leaves a plate of poisoned scones for Mahony, then a bomb in the letterbox, and finally tries to bribe him to leave for America.

Kidd’s cast of characters–living and dead–are all brought together as Mahony and Mrs. Cauley stage a play, Hamlet-style, to flush out the killer. And, much like Hamlet there’s a fight, murder, a raving woman who knows the killer, and too many secrets to count.

If you’ve a friend who is a Hibernophile (Did you even know that was a thing?!), Himself would make a perfect St. Paddy’s Day surprise. Pop it in a bright green bag with a bottle of stout, a packet of crisps, and you’ll be fast friends forever.

Flash Fiction Friday

She sat next to the bed in the same chair where she had first rocked the boys when they were teething and sleepless and then years later waited for them to come home, trying not to watch the clock hands make their way towards midnight. The shades were down, but she could see the August afternoon peeking in around the edges. The air was quiet and the AC had cooled the room until it was almost damp, cellar-like. She thought she could smell the damp earth crumbling beneath the house.flash fiction

She stared straight ahead, not moving. Dry-eyed, even now. It might be some sort of good luck that If she kept still enough, she wouldn’t break. If she focused on the closet door across the room, she might slow time. Maybe even turn it back–back to when she rocked those babies and fretted over teenage wildness.

“Mom?” It was Joe, whispering in the hall.
“Mom?” he said a little louder, daring to crack the door.
“No.”
“But, Mom … “
“Joseph Daniel, leave me be.”

And so the door pulled back, knob turning gently into the latch. Down the hall she heard dishes sliding onto the table, heard the silverware drawer rattle, smelled onions and garlic. But none of it for her. They kept their voices low, for that she was thankful.

“Maybe tomorrow I’ll be able to forget,” she whispered to the dark.

[The flash fiction “Remembering”, 2016 draft, appeared first on This Is My Symphony.]

Love Warrior: review

Love Warrior
Glennon Doyle Melton
Flatiron Books

“The journey is learning that pain, like love, is simply something to surrender to. It’s a holy space we can enter with people only if we promise not to tidy up … the courage to surrender comes from knowing that the love and pain will almost kill us, but not quite.”

love warrioI dragged my feet reading Glennon Doyle Melton’s latest book Love Warrior, even going so far as to skip over the title on my last two book orders because I was “in the mood for fiction”. (Hah! Can you say “ostrich”?!) Even though I’d watched Melton on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday. Even though I loved her podcast on Elizabeth Gilbert’s Magic Lessons. Even though my very own therapist had recommended it.

Because who wants to read about a marriage that failed and then didn’t when your own can be like a ride on the Blue Streak? But read it I did, and I survived. In fact, after I finished it, I went back and re-read the end, marking up pages that need some more reflection.

Love Warrior is that good.

The first seven chapters bring us to the Big Divide in Melton’s marriage, the thing that made Melton a Warrior. She reveals that she became bulimic when only a tween and struggled with alcohol addiction in college and after until she got sober. The catalyst that brought her twenty-something-year-old self to recovery was a little blue line on a pregnancy test. Not sure what part her boyfriend would play in their future, Melton was certain she would have this baby. A whirlwind engagement and wedding followed and the two played their roles as faithfully as they knew how. Eventually, Melton wrote about the messiness of family and relationships on her popular blog Momastery and also in her first book Carry On, Warrior.

Three kids and a cross country move later the bottom fell out of the world she tried so carefully to create: Melton discovered her husband had a series of affairs throughout their entire marriage. She was done. It was over. There are no do-overs in the face of such betrayal.

And so what started as Melton’s own personal quest for wholeness without her husband became the very glue that patched them back together*. Melton is brutally honest, insistent. Women have for too long separated themselves from their breath, their bodies, their Life’s Work; we end up an empty shell that serves neither our families or our own happiness. Coming back into our own skin and embracing even our pain is the only way to save ourselves.

And when she recognizes the Grace that had been extended to her, she realizes it is her great privilege to extend it to her husband.

Glennon Doyle Melton has given women committed to faith and family a much-needed treatise for a new kind of feminism, one with fewer ties to politics and more to the spiritual.

“Love, Pain, Life: I am not afraid. I was born to do this,” writes Melton on the final page. Them’s fightin’ words, Love Warriors.


* The  after-afterword to Melton’s story is one about which, I’m sure, she’ll write. You can find it on her August 1st blog post, and even more of her story on her Facebook page.