The Lauras: review

The Lauras (NetGalley)
Sara Taylor
Crown Publishing

Ma bustles twelve-year-old Alex out of bed in the middle of the night, grabs a backpack always waiting by the front door, and Alex doesn’t the laurasreturn “home” for nearly four years. And “home” is what Sara Taylor’s novel The Lauras is all about. Is “home” the birthplace our parents choose for us? Is it the resting place we long for–even though we haven’t yet arrived? Maybe our only true home is our body–and how we live comfortably or restlessly within its flesh. Taylor would have us believe that we’ll never truly feel at home on this earth until we answer some of those questions.

Alex knows the home her parents have kept together for her is anything but happy. But it’s all she’s known and she feels its pull even as the two of them crisscross the country. Her mother is on a journey to make sense of the people and places that shaped her: a foster home, a college friend, a lover. She exacts retribution in some cases. So they live on the savings Ma has bankrolled–sometimes home is a motel or a dingy efficiency. Sometimes it’s the backseat of the car or sleeping rough along a county road. Family meals are sometimes forgotten or come from a vending machine. Once or twice the two stop so Alex can attend school, and Ma can add to that bankroll. But she’s pushing, always pushing toward home.

Along the way Alex learns about Ma’s life through a series of stories about Lauras: the crazy one in the foster home, the one from Catholic school, the delinquent Laura, the Laura she fell in love with in college. And Alex learns that life is as much a series of missteps and heartache as it is success and delight. As a coming-of-age story, The Lauras works well.

But where the novel soars is in Taylor’s examination of how we human beings come to feel at home in our bodies. And Alex isn’t. Most reviewers I read label Alex transgender, which I think it inaccurate. Alex, at twelve, thirteen, fourteen, is simply Alex. The Alex not ready to commit to a gender, but becoming more and more comfortable with their body. You can see what I did there, using a gender-free pronoun–and I did it clumsily. Taylor wrote her novel using Alex as the narrator, never revealing her birth sex. And by doing so, Taylor humanized Alex’s experience in a way that simply identifying a character as ‘transgender’ never could. Alex is Every Man Human. And because gender is a social construction, if I remember by Psych 101 correctly, how Alex chooses to relate to the world is self-determined.

I’ve reviewed a number of novels that play with the idea of gender–Middlesex, Neverhome, The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Lobdell, Misfortune–and I wrote about them here. They were all compelling reads and approached the idea of gender roles with caution. But none of the writers did a better job of emphasizing a transgender character’s humanity than Sara Taylor did in this very raw and tender story.


*edit*
My trust in Publisher’s Weekly just tanked–throughout this short piece, the writer wrote about Alex using the pronoun “she”. Sheesh! Did they not even read the dang book?! Publishers Weekly: any chance you’re looking for reviewers …

Running : Girl Last Seen & Unbecoming (reviews)

Girl Last Seen (NetGalley)
Nina Laurin
Grand Central Publishing/Hatchett Group


Unbecoming
Rebecca Scherm
Penguin

unbecomingTwo young women: Laine, a kidnap victim; and Julie, an accessory to a crime. Both are living under assumed names, supposedly for protection. Except, as both Girl Last Seen and Unbecoming demonstrate, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to run away from one’s past.

The stronger of the two novels is Unbecoming. Julie, nee Grace, is hiding out in France where she restores antiques at a small shop. She leads a quiet life and tries not to call attention to herself. It’s also a lonely life–because friendships would mean Grace would have to invent a past and keep track of her story. At the novel’s beginning, Grace gets word that her husband Riley and his best friend Alls are about to be paroled after spending three years in prison for a crime that she helped plan. What’s worse is the fact that Grace had planned her getaway with Alls … not her husband.

Grace met Riley when they were barely teens, and fell in love with his family. (And Riley, of course. Sort of.) The Grahams–especially Mrs. Graham–gave Grace a Leave it to Beaver family to belong to, one very different from her own. Mrs. Graham took on Grace as the daughter she never had, and Grace spent most of her days and nights with Riley’s family. The two secretly married the summer after Grace graduated high school, and Grace spent her life becoming what Riley needed her to be.

Grace studied art history at a prestigious art school in New York and had worked for an estate appraiser, so when a series of drunken hijinks left Riley owing money, they hatched the plan to rob the Wynne House, an estate in their hometown. Grace’s research leads her to discover that a small oil painting at Wynne House is rare and more than enough to get them out of trouble. They plan for Riley to reproduce the painting, after which they’d slip his copy in place of the original and escape to Europe. A fool proof plan, except for the fact that Grace and Alls spend forbidden night together, can’t deny their attraction any longer, and the two secretly arrange their escape.

But Grace ends up betraying both men, and now she has every reason to expect them to turn up on her doorstep, demanding … what, exactly? There’s no reason to spoil your reading of this suspenseful novel, but suffice it to say, Grace turns chameleon and becomes someone else again.

girl last seenNina Laurin’s Girl Last Seen is a novel that attempts to look at a girl on the milk carton after her rescue. And it’s not pretty. Laine, formerly Ella Santos, was held for nearly three years in a basement. Raped and tortured. Although Laine says, “Normal is something you can fake really well, if you try hard enough,” she isn’t doing a good job of it. Battling PTSD and anxiety, medicating herself with both legal and illegal prescriptions, and drinking to forget, Laine can barely hold on to her two jobs. Her shame runs deep, and her life is a mess. When ten-year-old Olivia Shaw disappears, now thirteen years after her own kidnapping, Laine finds herself drawn into the investigation.

Police suspect that the Laine’s kidnapper just might be the same man who abducted Olivia. The officer who rescued Laine ten years ago, detective Sean Ortiz, is working the Shaw case, convinced that this time the perpetrator will be caught with her help. Or could the Olivia’s kidnapper be Laine herself? Because Olivia Shaw is Laine’s daughter, conceived in rape, and taken away from her at birth. Trusting no one, Laine takes it upon herself to find Olivia and her search brings up demons in her past she had long sought to exorcise.

Sometimes the characters Laine and Sean seemed to lack authenticity–their responses and reactions to situations fell short of how I’d expect individuals to act. It got so that whenever Laine swallowed yet another pill or drank herself into a stupor again, I found myself more bored than concerned. But Girl Last Seen is a story of recovery (in more ways than one) and redemption, and in that sense, it’s a worthwhile read.

 

Anything Is Possible: review

Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Random House

anything is possibleYears ago I was a bit put off by writer Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge: great writing, stunning insight–but Olive was so … unlikable. (And I know, I know, the novel won the Pulitzer, so who am I to talk?!) But I tried her again with Burgess Boys (there was that Pulitzer, after all) and wasn’t disappointed. After My Name is Lucy Barton I was convinced like so many others that a Strout novel was a great read–but her latest novel Anything is Possible is a masterpiece.

Strout exposes the dark side of human nature in an achingly beautiful way. So, yes, we do find Linda Peterson-Cornell’s voyeurism distasteful and her tacit approval of her husband, a sexual predator, despicable.  But then Linda’s sister Patty–painfully obese, a virgin throughout her marriage, faithfully caring for an elderly mother with dementia–pulls aside the curtain of their childhood, and somehow we understand. Maybe even absolve. We meet Lucy Barton again (now a famous author), as she visits with her brother Pete and sister Vicky. They tiptoe around family secrets at first, then begin to survey the damage their parents had wracked on them. And Charley Macauley who pays for sex and then discovers that maybe he has paid for love; Mary, who left a philandering husband after her heart attack to take up with a lover nearly twenty years her junior in Italy.

Strout takes the stories of broken people and makes them our stories too. Because we all, in some way or another, carry our wounds into the relationships we enter into. And whether we like it or not, because we are flawed, we often end up hurting the very people we love the most. Hopefully not to the extent of Strout’s characters, and hopefully we find the same redemption many of them do. But anything is possible.

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.