My December 3 book culture column for the San Francisco Chronicle:
When I heard that the new novel, Nothing to See Here, by Kevin Wilson (The Family Fang) was about 10-year-old twins who spontaneously combust when agitated, I immediately thought “Nope, not for me.” Then I read the New York Times review by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, a writer I admire for her humor and originality, and thought I’d give it a whirl … still without high expectations.
I’m so glad I did, if only for the book’s protagonist, Lorraine, a down-on-her-luck Southern 20-something who’s been majorly screwed by life. It starts with her mother, a chain smoking, gambling, sleeping around with white trash (can I still say that?) horror, who sells her daughter out on more than one occasion. Then there’s her former prep school roommate, Madison, an ambitious, calculating daughter of privilege raised to marry a senator, which indeed she does. She throws Lillian under the bus (with Lillian’s mother’s complicity) in the early chapters, a situation that so enraged me I carried my indignation throughout the book.
The bulk of the novel involves Lillian coming to the mansion where Madison and the Senator live to take care of the combustible twins, the spawn of the Senator and his former wife, to hide them from public view and keep them from burning down the house while he’s going through confirmation hearings for Secretary of State. Sounds wild, no?
Indeed, it’s a helluva plot but, against all odds, Wilson makes it work. And Lillian is a helluva character. She’s depressed and not giving a shit about living in her mother’s attic and working a dead-end job when the novel begins. By its close she’s evolved into a totally different, more responsible and resourceful person with a strong moral compass.
This book has a deceptive complexity … because the plot is so, well, turbulent, it seems, on the surface, that’s the whole deal. But it’s about way more than the story line, touching on friendship, deception, hypocrisy, abandonment, and describing some very flawed people. It’s also about opening yourself up to love both others and yourself. Wilson not only pulls it off, he makes us think hard about what makes a family. And he makes us laugh. Pretty remarkable stuff.
I had never heard of Bernadine Evaristo until I learned she shared the Booker Prize with Margaret Atwood. Boy am I glad I took notice.
Evaristo’s new novel Girl, Woman, Other is a multi-voiced work, featuring twelve loosely and tightly connected Black British women—from Amma, a lesbian playwright whose story opens the book and who serves as the nucleus to the other voices, to a 93-year-old woman living on a farm in Northern England. There’s also a jaded public school teacher, an investment banker, a house cleaner, and a non-binary social influencer.
All of the characters have authentic voices, all of their stories have wider societal and cultural resonance. It’s a searing portrait of contemporary Britain as well as the legacy of Britain’s colonial history in Africa and the Caribbean.
Most of you know me as liking fairly traditional, linear narrative. But the structure of this book, moving quickly from one character to another in a style that falls somewhere between prose and poetry, totally worked for me. I was able to move seamlessly between the stories and follow the natural cadence of the novel.
At times I got a bit lost as to the connections between the women, but I generally picked up the thread again. And in a way it didn’t matter. What did matter is all these women ARE connected by virtue of being something of “the other” in British society—certainly in race but also in sexuality, education, and class.
I’m finding myself drawn to these stories lately, to immigrants and people who are marginalized by race, poverty, physical differences, lack of education, etc. I guess it’s the times. Stories of privileged people feel slight and frivolous.
So do read Bernadine Evaristo’s new book. It’ll take you somewhere else, to a place I feel it’s really important for all of us to go.
It seems there isn’t much we can count on these days. I write this as PG&E has turned off the power in my neighborhood but not just down the street. Don’t even get me started.
One thing we can rely on is that Ann Patchett is a consistently great writer. Her latest novel, The Dutch House, is a rich multi-layered family story complete with a wicked stepmother who turns out not to be a stereotype. Imagine that.
The novel centers on a lavish mansion in suburban Philadelphia, the Dutch House of the title. It’s purchased by Cyril Connolly at the end of WWII, enabling him to build a real estate empire and bring his family from poverty to extreme wealth.
For reasons that become clear as the novel unfolds, Cyril’s wife Elna is uncomfortable enough with everything the house signifies that she abandons her husband and two children.
The Dutch House centers on the children, Danny and Maeve, and their life in the decades after their mother’s departure and father’s remarriage. Patchett makes the house a symbol of home and everything that implies for Danny and Maeve. And just like the stepmother, she treats that theme in a way that feels fresh and revelatory.
She also creates a marvelous maternal, independent character in Maeve, and chooses to tell the story from Danny’s point of view so we get the benefit of seeing her from a distance. The strength of the sibling bond is beautifully rendered here.
In a conversation with Mary Laura Philpott, who writes a column for Parnassus Books—Patchett’s bookstore in Nashville, and, yes, she started a vital independent bookstore as if being a celebrated novelist wasn’t enough—Patchett says the inspiration for The Dutch House came from Zadie Smith, who told her the character of the mother in Swing Time was autobiographical because the mother in the book was the mother she didn’t want to be. Andrea, the horrific stepmother in The Dutch House, says Patchett, is the stepmother she doesn’t want to be.
So there you have it. A great story, a wonderful read, perceptively-drawn characters acting in a manner that tells us something about the human condition. Ann Patchett makes it look easy.
The decision about what books to take on a trip just as important to me as what goes in the suitcase. Actually, it’s more important. To find myself stranded in a train station or airport with nothing good to read would be far worse than having the wrong pair of shoes (and honestly, I always have the wrong pair of shoes anyway).
I did a lot of thinking about what books to take on my recent trip to Portugal. I looked at the best-known Portuguese writers, poet Fernando Pessoa and novelist Jose Saramago, and just couldn’t go that route; Pessoa felt too intellectual/esoteric, Saramago just too damn depressing. I know there’s lots more to these writers than that short dismissal but I’m just telling you how I felt.
So I packed a copy of Night Train to Lisbon in my carry-on. The author, Pascal Mercier, is Swiss rather than Portuguese, but it takes place largely in Lisbon, and the Portuguese language and character are a big part of the story, so it seemed fitting.
And I carried the real book, not the Kindle version. I stopped reading on Kindle years ago, preferring paper in my hands for all kinds of reasons. To my mind it’s totally worth the extra luggage weight.
It was a wonderful choice. The novel’s main character, Raimund Gregorious, is stuck in a buttoned-down joyless rut teaching classics at the same Swiss lycée he attended as a student. A chance encounter with a Portuguese woman and a mysterious book of philosophical observations cause him to abruptly flee his well-established life and, quite impulsively, head to Portugal.
The book that so intrigues him is by Amadeus Prado, an enigmatic, brilliant doctor and philosopher who left a huge imprint on everyone who knew him and who, ultimately, came into conflict with the brutal Salazar regime. Gregorious spends much of the novel tracking down those who knew Prado—his sister, a priest, a childhood friend, a lover—attempting to get at the heart of his philosophy and solve the mystery of his life.
Great portions of Night Train are devoted to quoting the book of Prado’s that falls into Gregorious’s hands, and I admit I cheated a little bit, skimming some of those passages. While they’re erudite and thought-provoking, I was more interested in Gregorious’s own journey. The idea of a man who has followed the same routine for years suddenly opening his life and opening to the possibility of change is fascinating.
Among its many themes, Night Train considers the safety of routine, the fear of intimacy, the nature of risk, the hypocrisy of religion, and the art of self-delusion—it questions our very understanding of identity.
I could definitely go back and re-read this book, as I’m certain I missed big important chunks essential to Prado’s thought process and conclusions about life. But when I closed the last page, I was very satisfied. And since I finished on the train from Porto to Lisbon (sadly, during the broad daylight or it would have been too perfect), I Ieft it on the train for another traveler to discover. Seemed like the right thing to do.