The Bad Daughter: review

The Bad Daughter
Joy Fielding
Ballantine Books

Every year I read at least one mystery just to keep myself open to the idea of reading whodunits and thrillers and all books mysterious. This bad daughteryear’s is Joy Fielding’s The Bad Daughter. (Of course I might also have chosen the book because of the title, so there’s that. Years of therapy … but that’s another post, I guess!) And even though I almost bailed on it, I’m glad I didn’t. It was a rollicking good time, with suspects galore.

Robin is heading home after five years away, and she’s a bundle of nerves. Not necessarily because her father and step-mom have been brutally murdered, but because she is heading home to Red Bluff and her older sister Melanie. To say their relationship was contentious is putting it mildly. Melanie is snarky and snide and downright cruel where Robin is concerned. She’s got a chip on her shoulder and she’s not shy about voicing her resentments: Robin went to college; Robin is a professional; Robin lives in L.A. And truthfully, Melanie’s life sucks. She had her son Landon when she was in her teens, and he is autistic. She never escaped Red Bluff, and her love life is non-existent. So the battle between the sisters is intense–in fact, it was the reason that I almost didn’t stay with The Bad Daughter. The first chapter or two were a little too “chick-lit-y” for my taste. You know, the “my-sister-hates-me-and-I-don’t-know-why” sort of book.

But once the investigation gets going and the suspects start lining up, it’s a great read. When the evidence was stacked against each new person of interest, I’d play the rest of the novel out in my head to see if it made sense. Now I’m no whodunit expert, but that has got to be the sign of a good one. But the victims? Their lives made the story. Melanie and Robin’s father is a wealthy, philandering loud-mouth. Always has been. So truth be told, we don’t feel terrible that he got his. But their step-mom Tara was Robin’s best friend in high school (I know, ewwww) and once engaged to her brother Alec. Complicating matters, Greg and Tara have a twelve-year-old daughter, Cassidy. The girl was indulged by their dad as Robin and Melanie the never were. Cassidy witnessed the robbery–and perhaps even the murder–but she’s hospitalized with gunshot wounds.

So who did it? The daughter? The nephew? The son? Or someone else entirely? I’ll tell you what–this family puts the ‘fun’ in dysfunctional!

White Houses: review

White Houses
Amy Bloom
Random House

The story begins April 1945, just weeks after FDR’s death. Lorena Hickok, Eleanor Roosevelt’s dear friend, is readying the apartment–Eleanor white housesneeds to gather herself after the President’s funeral with all its pomp and obligations for the widowed First Lady. She is tired. Bereft. (She only learned after his death that Lucy Mercer had been at Warm Springs with Franklin when he died.) So Eleanor turns to Hick, as she calls Lorena, for comfort and tenderness. The two had met eleven years prior and their relationship was an anchor for both of them.

What follows is a flashback of those eleven years, four of them with Hick living in the White House, just down the hall from the President and Eleanor. Lorena Hickok was a trailblazing political journalist for the Associated Press at a time when newspaper women were relegated to the social pages. After an interview with Eleanor shortly before FDR took office, the two women developed a fast friendship. They vacationed together, went on road trips and picnics, corresponded daily when apart.

Author Amy Bloom tells the story of Eleanor and Hick as if the two had been lovers. And it’s difficult to know if that was the case. Or not.

Their correspondence was certainly passionate and even suggestive of an affair. Here is Eleanor to Hick just after Franklin’s inauguration: “I want to put my arms around you … to hold you close. Your ring is a great comfort. I look at it and I think she does love me, or I wouldn’t be wearing it” (Goodwin).  Hick moved into the White House after resigning from the AP to work for the Democratic National Committee, but the real reason for her career move might have been to be closer to Eleanor. Her years long relationship with Ellie Morse was in the past, and Hick was smitten with Eleanor. For her part, Eleanor was not at first comfortable in her role as First Lady and it was Hick who saw her potential and urged Eleanor to start her syndicated column My Day and hold press conferences of her own. Each woman had suffered and was insecure in her own way–the other provided support and encouragement not found elsewhere.

One of the best books I’ve ever read about the Roosevelts was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s No Ordinary Time which covers Franklin and Eleanor during the War years. It’s a painstaking look at the couple, one that reveals how their relationship changed over time. Goodwin’s book is much less concerned with romanticizing the couple, as did the popular Franklin and Eleanor by Joe Lash. I’m not certain how Goodwin would view this novel, but she did write that the communication between women of the Victorian age needs to be put into the context of the time, that because the relationships between men and women “lacked ease … women opened their hearts more freely to other women.” Goodwin admits the correspondence between Eleanor and Hick  does”possess an emotional intensity and sensual explicitness that is hard to disregard,” but that a historian recognizes that there is no way to ascertain the true nature of what went on behind closed doors.

Amy Bloom goes behind those doors in a novel that some will find engaging … and others unsettling. But the novel is thought-provoking–maybe enough so that you’ll read its perfect companion No Ordinary Time.

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place: review

The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place
Alan Bradley
Random House
release date: January 30, 2018

It’s certainly no secret that I have a little crush on Flavia de Luce. How could I not? She’s brilliant, confident, beguiling, and misunderstood. the grave's a fine and private place(I’m pretty sure I’ve reviewed all of her books on this blog!)) I couldn’t have been happier that Flavia returned to Buckshaw in Thrice the Brinded Cat after her brief interlude at Miss Bodycoate’s in Chimney Sweepers. While I’ve never gone on a Flavia adventure I haven’t loved, it was good to be home.

In The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place, the 9th Flavia mystery, Flavia, her sisters Feely and Daffy, and Dogger have gone on holiday to recover from a death in the family and spend time together before Buckshaw is sold. The girls will scatter in different directions (Flavia to London to live with Aunt Felicity), Dogger and Mrs. Mullet released from service. But while boating on a lazy river near Volesthorpe, Dogger points out St.-Mildred’s-in-the-Marsh, where just two years before one Canon Whitbread had poisoned three members of his congregation with tainted communion wine. And quick as you can say cyanide and strychnine, wouldn’t you know–Flavia pulls a corpse out of the river.

There’s the usual eccentric cast of characters. A flamboyant actress, Poppy Mandrill, who directs village plays in her retirement. The nosy Mrs. Palmer, innkeeper-cum-poet. A gambling funeral director. And even a beautiful old flame from Dogger’s past, Miss Claire Tetlock.

The plot and cast of characters are pretty much what readers have come to expect in an Alan Bradley novel. I have a pair of fuzzy slippers I slip on the moment I come home from work. They’re not fashionable designer slippers and my feet get what they expect: cozy comfort.  And just like those slippers, the plot of this novel is as familiar and comfortable as the ones that preceded it.

After the dramatic cliffhangers of the last two novels, the ending of The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place is a happy one. Or maybe promising is more accurate. In any case, Bradley leads us to believe that we are about to set off on a Flavia adventure of an entirely  different sort in book #10.

The Windfall: review

The Windfall (NetGalley)
Diksha Basu
Crown Publishing

Let’s get it out of the way right from the start: I was captivated by The Windfall. Writer Diksha Basu writes a sort of Indian Pride and the windfallPrejudice with some overtones of Great Expectations. The novel is at times humorous, poignant, and scathing–sometimes all on the same page.  

For nearly their entire married life, Mr. and Mrs. Jha have lived in Mayur Palli, a middle class housing complex in East Delhi. The apartments were cramped, the streets noisy, and the neighbors nosy. After Mr. Jha sells a website for the astounding amount of twenty million U.S. dollars, the couple has purchased a house in the wealthy suburb of Guragun where the homes are spacious, the streets tranquil, and the neighbors … well, they’re still nosy, just not crowded in cheek to jowl. The novel opens with the Jhas gathering their neighbors together for dinner to share the news.

It’s clear from the outset that Mrs. Jha is decidedly less eager to leave than Mr. Jha. She remembers her neighbors looking out for their son Rupak when he was young and she was one of the few career women in Mayur Palli; she cherishes the friendships that have grown up with their family over the years. Mr. Jha sees things differently, however. He worked hard and this is their reward. He wants to leave their middle class world behind and revel in his new wealth. There’s no clinging to the old ways for Mr. Jha. The house in Guragun has showers, instead of a cup and bucket. He orders a dishwasher. And he has taken delivery on a new sofa from Japan–one studded with crystals that sparkle like diamonds. As Mr. Jha decides which Next Great Thing to purchase, he reasons, “They couldn’t live in a neighborhood like this and not keep up with the neighbors.”

Caught in the middle is their twenty-something son Rupak. The family’s windfall has meant Rupak can attend grad school in the U.S. so he can make bucketfuls of money himself one day. Except that Rupak is on academic probation, distracted by an American girlfriend and a bank account that magically replenishes itself. Rupak buys thousand dollar golf club sets, an iPad, a GoPro and just about any other toy that catches his eye. He has no clear vision of what he wants to do and is going through the motions of getting his MBA, just barely.

In the end, all of his posturing takes its toll on Mr. Jha as, through a comedy of errors, he begins to recognize the emptiness in his new neighbors’ lives and begins to miss the genuine friendship of his old neighbors. Bashu also gives us the story of Mrs. Jha’s best friend Mrs. Ray, a widow who finds love at her door later in life and her story deepens the connection between the Jhas new life and their former one.

Bashu gives American readers a peek into an India most of us know little about, and her commentary on Americans is wicked. Take this observation, for example: “How come Americans get called expats but if we move to America, we’re called immigrants?” Or this: “Americans were coming to India for holidays … but once they had done yoga and tried halfheartedly to teach English to prostitute’s children, they got on planes back to their homes in Michigan or Texas.” She continues, “They laughed with the slum children and pretended not to mind touching their filthy hands. Of course they didn’t mind. It would be easy to touch those children if you knew you were leaving and next week you would be back at home … telling people how those children laugh and smile even tough their lives are so difficult.” Ouch.

Will the Jhas stay or will they go? Will Rupak return to India or finish his MBA and carry on with his American girlfriend? I thought for sure I knew how the novel would end, but I didn’t. But good people are good people whether fictional or real life characters, and they figure things out.

And the Jhas are good people.

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.