Family Secrets

Sarah’s Key
Tatiana De Rosnay

Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key was another novel on the book club table at Schuler’s that I picked up and put down for over a year. Alternating chapters between World War II (July 1942, to be exact) and present day France, we get the stories of two women, Julia Jarmond and Sarah Starzynski. Julia, an American ex-pat who has lived in Paris for the past twenty-five year,s is investigating Vichy France’s round-up and deportation of thousands of Jews. Sarah’s story is tragic–she is held in the Vel’ d’Hiv’ with her mother and father until they are separated and sent to different internment camps. Eleven-year-old Sarah does not understand the gravity and finality of that midnight knock on the door and agrees on the spur-of-the-moment to lock her four-year-old brother in their secret hiding place, not knowing that it would be his death sentence.

Living with that knowledge haunts Sarah and the family that found little Michael’s body for the rest of their lives. Sarah escapes from the camp and is sheltered by an elderly French couple from the countryside. Growing up as their adopted daughter, she eventually immigrates to the U.S. where she disappears at age twenty. Journalist Julia Jarmond discovers Sarah’s story in her research–and perhaps even more horrifying is her discovery that her husband’s family moved in to the Starzynski’s vacant apartment soon after their departure, and are there when Sarah several months later to recover his body. Feeling they are somehow complicite in his death, the Tezac family harbors the secret for sixty years.

Julia and Sarah’s stories alternate chapters for much of the book, which makes a good read for us impatient readers who hate having to leave one story to pick up another! Sarah’s story ends tragically, and Julia’s seems headed that way as she anticipates an abortion, divorce, and leaving Paris for the States. In the end, however, Sarah’s story is more satisfying, at least in the narrative sense. De Rosnay drags Julia’s story on a bit too long and maybe most confusing to me was the implied relationship between Julia and Sarah’s son William at the end. What, exactly, was their connection–spiritual? romantic? friendship?

Although the ending did not live up to the novel’s promise, Sarah’s Key was a good vacation read that kept me turning the page. 

Ten hours

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter
by Tom Franklin

Post-Christmas open house found me sluggish, lounging on the sofa in my pj’s until 4 PM–and devouring Tom Franklin’s Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter in a mere ten hours. Set in Mississippi in the early seventies and the present, the novel explores the lives of two men, one black, one white, following the murder of a teenage girl in their town. Larry Ott, for years convicted of the crime in the court of public opinion (although no body was ever found, nor did he ever confess), is the town loner, and his (sometimes) black friend Silas Jones returns to his hometown as town constable after serving several years on the police force in Oxford, Mississippi. Their lives connect again when another young woman comes up missing–and Larry Ott is once again the prime suspect.

Franklin wove his narrative in such a way that I was never slowed by the back story he needed to tell. The novel, suprisingly, begins with Larry’s murder-gone-wrong. Silas finds himself drawn back to Larry’s home to gain perspective on their broken childhood friendship. As happens in most Southern novels, Silas discovers a secret in the attic–literally–and tries to come to terms with its implications for the rest of the novel. Silas also has harbored some information for thirty years that would have implicated himself, rather than Larry, in the past murder.

The book’s back cover blurb called the book a “thriller” and suspense novel, which was much too heavy-handed in my view. At novel’s end, we see both men close one door and open another. Silas comes to understand the redemptive power of truth, and Larry begins to learn the strength found in community–but both somewhat grudgingly, and only after suffering in isolation for much too long.

Unfulfilled

Remarkable Creatures
by Tracy Chevalier

I was anxious to begin my first Christmas read, a novel by Tracy Chevalier, who also wrote Girl With A Pearl Earring, because of the time period: early nineteenth century, the place: Lyme, England, and the topic: women in the sciences, as rare as the fossils these women discovered. And although the back cover blurb promised the characters, “… forge a path to some of the most important discoveries of the nineteenth century” I felt the book didn’t deliver what it promised. 

Miss Elizabeth Philpot, at twenty-four, understands her place in the world as a spinster, and lives with two of her unmarried sisters in Lyme Regis,a seaside town in England. The sisters settled into their husbandless lots by developing eccentricities: Margaret mixed herbal tonics and salves, Louise gardened avidly, and Elizabeth had “the eye” for finding fossilized ichthyosauri,   Counterpoint to Elizabeth is the younger Mary Anning, who also has the eye–but is the daughter of a widowed laundress who sometimes resorts to burning the furniture for fuel. Despite the class differences the two women form a fast friendship, begin working together to hunt for the next big find. Even as Mary sells her finds to support the family, the two accompany growing number of treasure hunters, collectors, and geologists who begin to flock to the area once the discoveries are made public. Elizabeth and Mary have a falling out over the affections of one of these gentlemen, and they cease to work together.

The story touched lightly on the effect the fossils had on religious beliefs of the time, the constraints of spinsterhood in the nineteenth century, and the exclusion of women in any intellectual endeavor. Any of these enormous themes could have driven an insightful novel. What I found most  disappointing was that the how of Elizabeth and Mary’s expertise was wholly ignored. The women might read Cuvier, a French fossil expert, but the ideas and their thoughts on their reading weren’t relayed or discussed in any meaningful way. It was almost as if their knowledge was innate–although the novel covered many years the reader sees no building of ideas.  I felt this gave the women’s scientific “knowledge” less weight. Quite frankly, I didn’t fully believe they were experts.

That said, I did find the book readable and it was a pleasant, though not altogether fulfilling, way to begin my reading holiday.

Next up: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin. I’m reading a thriller? By choice?!

Hungry for more?

Hunger Games
by Suzanne Collins

This summer I read Scott Westerfeld’s Pretties/Uglies series and loved the fresh-take on storytelling in Young Adult novels. One member of our bookclub has been campaigning for Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games for a few months, and I wanted to quickly read it so I could get on to my Christmas break books! Perhaps it was my rush, or my glut of Westerfeld this summer, but these critically acclaimed YA novels didn’t make me immediately order the next in the series, as I did after reading The Uglies.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the novel–I stayed up late trying to finish it last night, and did so this morning with my coffee. Another futuristic science fiction  novel, the story line had many similarities to Westerfeld’s books: an individualistic, rebellious teen girl fights the constraints of a dystopian society. Katniss Everdeen offers herself up to take the place of her cherished little sister, Prim, when the youngster is chosen ala The Lottery to be a “tribute” (or participant) in the country’s Hunger Games. The games, apparently, were instituted some fifty years previously to control the populace with fear and intimidation. Each year, two tributes are chosen from each District and fight to the death in a wilderness arena. Katniss can’t bear the thought of  the tender, naive Prim enduring such depravity and, even though their District has won only once, feels she stands something of a chance due to her experience as a hunter.

[spoiler alert]

What follows is a weeks’ long cat-and-mouse game between the twenty-four tributes. Of course, since Kat is the novel’s heroine, she does well in eluding the other participants. And since this is a young adult novel, there is the requisite love story between Kat and her District partner Peeta Mellark.. It is apparent that Peeta has been a long-time admirer of Kat’s, although she is oblivious to his affections. When their trainer suggests that they will stand a better chance of winning sponsorships and audience support if they act as star-crossed lovers, Katniss plays along. Or does she?

The cliff hanger must be a convention of YA series, and this one is no exception. And while I’m tempted to find out what happens to Kat and Peeta after they arrive home to Victory Village, this time I’m full, thank you very much.

Next up: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

From the stacks

Three Junes
by Julia Glass

I overlooked this book on the book club table at my local book stores for … maybe a year or more?! I would read the blurb on the back cover, carry it around for a while, and then think, “Oh–another book about three women? Sheesh! How many of those can you read?” And then I’d promptly set it down again. So what a surprise when I finally did succumb–only to find out that the “three Junes” were three months of June separated by years, and that two of the main narrators were men.

The story opens with the narrator Paul McLeod. A trip to Greece after the death of his wife prompts him to reminisce on their life together. As he tells his story, it is clear to the reader that we see things he does not–that the beautiful life he paints may have had some scratch outs and paint-overs. Paul’s son Fenno picks up the narration in the second June and we see Paul’s overpainting through the xray of his son’s story. The third June is told through the eyes of Fern, an neighbor of Fenno’s whose own life provides a counterpoint to Fenno’s. When Fern’s husband dies, Fenno is drawn in to her world–and through Fern’s tragedy finds clarity for his own.

A good read overall, I was most captivated with the McLeod family, and found myself distracted by Fern, who almost acted as a deus ex machina. I would rather that Glass had provided another family member’s perspective to round out the novel. Keeping it all in the family would have added to the novel’s cohesiveness.