Men behaving badly: The Best Kind of People (review)

The Best Kind of People
Zoe Whittal
Ballantine Books

The story is an all-too-familiar one: a beloved teacher is charged with improper behavior towards female students. Headlines scream. Families crumple. Lives disintegrate. I’d venture a guess it’s happened in just about every high school at one time or another. And if a parent or administrator is quick to deny such a thing would ever happen at their All-American High–just ask the kids. They know.

George Woodbury fits the profile: beloved teacher, active community member, loving family man. George was it at Avalon Hills Prep School. (In fact, George is so wonderful he single-handedly took down a school shooter at his daughter’s elementary school a decade earlier.) But one late-summer night, the police show up at the door. Arrest George. Strip the home he shares with wife Joan and seventeen-year-old daughter Sadie of photo albums, computers, files, even family portraits on the wall. Gone.

The charge? Sexual misconduct with three female students and attempted rape. George promises he’ll be out in a day or so–there must be some mistake. Joan pledges to make bail and stand by his side. Sadie is devastated. How could anyone accuse her father of such a ridiculous charge. He’s the one who gave her the rape whistle she wears. He’s the one who preached ‘girls can be anything’. “He even read the Gloria Steinem biography,” Sadie remembers. But is seems there have been rumors–whispers and warnings that George never spoke of to Joan–and some around Avalon Hills aren’t surprised at all.

There’s a fair amount added to the plot that I didn’t need. Sadie has a lot of sex with her boyfriend. There’s a party scene (or the aftermath) that’s raunchy. A based-on-real-events novel gets written about the case. The Woodbury’s live in a wealthy lakeside community on inherited money. Son Andrew can’t open up emotionally to his partner.

It’s Joan I can’t get out of my mind, though.

The woman did everything by the book. She married her sweetheart, she put him through grad school, she kept a beautiful home and grew vegetables and baked cookies and volunteered from here to kingdom come. As if that wasn’t enough, Joan was a respected emergency room nurse at the local hospital. She raised two incredibly bright and successful children. (Sadie’s older brother Andrew is a lawyer living in New York.) She was the Harriet to her Ozzie, the June to her Ward. She did things the. right. way.

How could she not know. She had to, right? That’s what the community thought. That’s what I think when I hear about these cases in the news. Or could it be that George wasn’t even guilty? Maybe he was just set up by some disgruntled, troubled young girls. That’s what the community thought. That’s what think when I hear about these cases in the news.

But we women love our men–even those behaving badly, right? Through thick and thin, ’til death do us part and all that.

We watch Joan grow a pair. She attends a support group for women whose partners are in prison. She finds out the trust money is (surprise!) nearly gone. She asserts herself, cuts off contact with George because of new evidence and starts to think about building a life without him.

Of course you want to know Joan’s decision. George’s guilt or innocence. There’s no spoiler alert here, reader. But the last page was so charged I could have thrown my Kindle across the room.

It’s a doozy.

Family drama: two end-of-summer reviews

Are You Sleeping? (NetGalley)
Kathleen Barber
Simon & Schuster

are you sleepingKathleen Barber’s new novel Are You Sleeping is a little bit mystery, a little bit thriller, and a lotta bit pop culture–the story is great vacation reading. Or, since the fall and winter are fast approaching, it would also make a good blizzard read! (Does anyone else remember books by winter storms?!)

Twins Josie and Lanie aren’t speaking. After their father’s murder when they were young teens both Lanie and their mother fell to pieces. Lanie lived life in the fast lane–sex, drugs, and outrageous behavior. Their mother Erin turned in on herself, curled up in bed, and lived in a medicated haze … until, that is, she joined a cult, the Life Force Collective. The girls’ Aunt Amelia steps in for her sister and provides a warm and loving home for the girls, but the trauma plays out in a series of betrayals that separates them. Josie goes so far as to legally change her name, move to New York, and re-invent her backstory to include being an orpahned only child

Lanie was the only witness to the murder and her testimony sent their teenage neighbor Warren Cave to prison for the crime he committed. Or did he?

Enter Poppy Parnell and her podcast Reconsidered. Cast in the same mold as Serial and Sh*t Town, Poppy opens the thirteen-year-old case and interviews the accused, his mother, police officers, the DA–exactly the voices we’d expect to hear from on a podcast like this. The only players who aren’t interviewed are the girls and Erin, but Poppy shadows them, even going so far as to show up at the funeral home when their mother dies.

As the podcast plays out (Twitter comments and all!) Josie begins to doubt everything she had believed about her family, their life together, and the horror of the murder. A great exposé into what drives us to remember–and why forgetting might be most difficult thing of all.

Goodbye, Vitamin (NetGalley)
Rachel Khong
Henry Holt

This is a hard one.

It’s Christmas, and Ruth Young, newly single, is home for the holidays. Fa-la-lalala and all that is merry and bright. Except when it isn’t. Ruth’s goodbye, vitamindad, Howard, is sliding into dementia. He’s been let go by the university where he taught for decades, and her mother, Annie, can’t cope by herself any longer. Just stay for awhile “to keep an extra eye on things” meaning “Just the year … think about it.”

And because Ruth is at loose ends and because she’s in an unsatisfying job, she stays. Trades San Francisco for Los Angeles. Things aren’t going well. Howard stays in his home office for hours (days?) at a time. He isn’t eating. Occasionally, he will surface and show Ruth the notebook he’s kept since her birth. He recorded simple things, their conversations, her questions–“Today you pronounced “worse” to rhyme with “horse”‘; Today you put sand in the microwave. You said you were making glass; Today you called your grandmother “small mom”–and the entries provide a tender backdrop to what we learn about Ruth’s father. That he has been a philanderer his entire marriage. That he is a heavy drinker. Ruth tends to overlook his flaws. Annie and Ruth’s brother Linus can’t.

But although dementia and dysfunction hardly sound like they’d add up to a touching story, Goodbye, Vitamin is a poignant tale of redemption. A small group of Howard’s former students volunteer to play-act a study group for him (Ruth is in on the deception, too), and we see Howard come alive again when he’s teaching. They hold class in empty rooms across campus, at a coffee shop, at home with birthday cake on Howard’s birthday, at Disneyland (for a lecture on the entertainment industry), on horseback (the lecture was about the Pony Express).

Harold gets worse and we see the can-be-amusing slips–“he called a mechanical pencil a needle” and when they passed “some evergreens called the needles pens“–and the not-so-amusing when he is found by the police sitting on a neighbor’s porch steps a few streets over, dressed only in boxers. Linus moves back home to help Ruth.

And, somehow, despite all the hurt, even with Howard’s cheating and drinking, the family comes together. Changed, yes. But they laugh together, cook dinner together, arrange nightlights all over the house so Howard doesn’t become disoriented. look at old family photographs. Now the tables are turned and it’s Ruth’s turn to hold onto the moments before they’re gone. “Today we ate grapes from a mug and met a white dog; Today we went for a run together … you lapped me handily, pumping your fist as you did; Today we went to the pumpkin patch; Today I saw you and Mom in the living room, reading, sitting very close.” 

Because there’s more than one way to be a family.

A Piece of the World: review

A Piece of the World
Christina Baker Kline
William Morrow

a piece of the worldChristina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train made me curious to read more about the orphans shipped cross-country at the turn-of-the-century. So when I read about her latest novel A Piece of the World and it’s subject–the painting Christina’s World by Andrew Wyeth–I immediately put the book on my wishlist.

And summer seemed like the perfect time to check it off.

My appreciation of Andrew Wyeth came in a round-about way. Like everyone else I was intrigued by the news of the Helga paintings discovered in 1986, and was surprised to find a second of the book The Helga Pictures at the bookstore where I worked. Then, on a trip to Washington D.C. a year later, I was able to view the collection at the National Gallery–without even knowing the work was on tour when I planned the trip. What an incredible story: over 300 never-known works by a famous artist, the intimacy of the pictures, curiosity about the relationship between artist and subject.

A Piece of the World sparked in me the same curiosity about Christina Olson, the subject of Wyeth’s famous Christina’s World. 

Christina Olson grew up in a farmhouse on the coast of Maine. Her parents were stern, but loving, and worked themselves (and their children) hard to make ends meet. Always a clumsy child, Christina’s physical condition gradually deteriorated until she had difficulty walking. By the time she was in school, Christina fashioned cotton pads for her elbows and knees, so she wouldn’t suffer cuts and scrapes. Even though her parents were willing to spend precious savings so that a specialist could diagnose her condition, Christina refused, hiding from her father when they arrived at the doctor’s office. Christina wanted to be loved for who she was, clumsy falls and all.

That stubborn determination was Christina’s constant ally–and ever-present enemy. It was that determination that allowed Christina to run the farmhouse as her parents aged and fall in love with a summer visitor. She attended dances with young people at the town hall, and fished with her brothers off the coast. And it was one of the qualities that painter Andy Wyeth admired so much in her. Wyeth himself suffered from a limp, and this might have been what allowed Christina to be open to their friendship. But Christina was also set in her ways and held on to hurts and perceived insults. She was a difficult woman if one was not one her good side.

Kline alternates between Christina’s back story and the thirty year long friendship that developed with Wyeth as he painted on the Olson property each summer. And like my fascination with the Helga pictures, I became curious about Wyeth all over again. (I must say that the internet made research a little easier this time around!) Michael Palin produced an episode about Wyeth for his BBC series titled Michael Palin In Wyeth’s World and I was able to find it on YouTube. The episode gave some great insight into Wyeth, but Palin interviewed the real Helga–and believe-you-me, the fantasy is much more satisfying that the reality.

If you like historical fiction or have always admired Wyeth’s painting, I can’t see how A Piece of the World would fail to please.

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.

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

Running : Girl Last Seen & Unbecoming (reviews)

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

Rebecca Scherm

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.