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Saturday, October 13, 2018

Review of THE WIFE by Meg Wolitzer

3.5 Stars
This book was written 15 years ago, but a film adaptation was released this summer, so I decided to read the book before seeing the movie.

Joan and Joe Castleman are enroute to Helsinki where Joe is to receive a prestigious literary award.  Joan has decided to leave her husband and plans to inform him of her decision at an opportune time.  In the meantime, she tells the story of her marriage beginning with their first encounter in 1956.  A promising writer, she abandons a career when she falls in love with her creative writing professor.  Joe becomes a successful writer but their marriage is not always happy:  Joe is a serial philanderer who ignores his children and obsesses about his reputation as a writer instead.  Joe and Joan share a major secret which the reader learns at the end. 

The secret is not really a surprise because there are so many clues.  Besides the obvious hints, what is not said also serves as a clue.  Joan speaks little about herself and so the reader starts to fill in gaps.  Her personality, however, is developed in detail.  She is intelligent but self-effacing.  She lets Joe take the limelight he so enjoys while she stays in the background and takes on the role of the supportive wife. 

Of course, Joe’s personality is also revealed.  He is self-centered and vain.  His fame has only bolstered his ego and he constantly yearns for recognition in the form of literary awards and the adulation of fans.  We see Joe primarily through Joan’s eyes so there may be some bias in her portrayal, but when he appears, his words and actions confirm her observations.  Though he is “one of those men who own the world” (10), he is a petulant boy “who had no idea of how to take care of himself or anyone else” (11). 

Naturally, Joan’s role is to take care of him and the family.  As she points out, “Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives.  Wives tend, they hover.  Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites picking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaction.  Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies.  We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.  ‘Listen,’ we say.  ‘Everything will be okay.’  And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is” (184). 

This is not the role she initially envisions for herself when she attaches herself to Joe “in an early fit of girlish optimism” (160) believing that Joe “was the important one, and I was unfinished.  He could finish me . . . he could provide the things I needed to actually become a whole person” (63).  When she is young and imagines becoming a writer, she is warned about the sad future for women writers; she is told emphatically that she won’t be able to get the attention of the men:  “’The men who write the reviews, who run the publishing houses, who edit the papers, the magazines, who decide who gets to be taken seriously, who gets put up on a pedestal for the rest of their lives. . . . I guess you could call it a conspiracy to keep the women’s voices hushed and tiny and the men’s voices loud. . . . There’s only a handful of women who get anywhere.  Short story writers, mostly, as if maybe women are somehow more acceptable in miniature. . . . But the men with their big canvases, their big books that try to include everything in them, their big suits, their big voices, are always rewarded more.  They’re the important ones.  And you want to know why? . . . Because they say so’” (53 – 54). 

Joan is given this advice in the 1950s when men did indeed own the world.  Things have changed and female writers are now as common as male writers, but the book provides a look at the recent past and shows that change has come slowly.  It is not just the fewer opportunities for a career that were a problem.  One of the Castleman daughters wonders why Joan doesn’t leave the marriage if she’s miserable and Joan responds with, “She knew nothing about this subculture of women who stayed, women who couldn’t logically explain their allegiances, who held tight because it was the thing they felt most comfortable doing . . . She didn’t understand the luxury of the familiar, the known” (82). 

This is an engaging read.  I loved Joan’s acerbic wit.  Her final statement about her husband may surprise some readers but I interpret it as a way of her taking control of her narrative.  Now I’m off to see how the film interprets the book. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Review of GIRLS BURN BRIGHTER by Shobha Rao

3.5 Stars
The novel begins in India in 2001.  Poornima and Savitha, two teenage girls living in abject poverty, meet and, quickly, each becomes the other’s confidante and solace.  This friendship, in many ways their only positive, sustaining relationship, shapes their entire lives.  When Poornima’s father sets out to arrange his daughter’s marriage, the two girls worry that she will marry “a man who lived too far away for Savitha to visit.”  It is not marriage but an act of brutal violence that tears the girls apart.  Savitha ends up running away and eventually Poornima also flees from an intolerable situation.  The novel details Savitha and Poornima’s separate journeys; Savitha seeks freedom and Poornima is determined to find her friend. 

The book is very much about the unbreakable bond of a true friendship.  Poornima is named after the moon and Savitha, after the sun, and each brings light into the life of the other.  Poornima’s mother is dead and her father admits to wishing he had let Poornima drown when she was a child, so Savitha gives her the love she has missed.  Savitha, whose family scours the garbage dump, thinks of the few real treasures she has; the first one she lists is “her love for Poornima,” and when Savitha runs away, the only thing she takes with her is an unfinished sari she was making for Poornima.   This piece of cloth Savitha desperately clings to throughout her tortuous ordeals.  Meanwhile, Poornima makes it her sole ambition to find her friend.   

Another theme is the lack of value girls and women have in the world:  “You are nothing.  You are a girl.”    Neither of the girls knows her birthdate because “Only the birthdates of the boys were recorded in the village.”  If Poornima’s father demands a second helping of curry, Poornima and Savitha are left “with only a spoonful to share” and have to fill up on rice.  Poornima realizes early on that her life is expected to be like her mother’s:  “That’s all she could recall her mother ever doing:  something for someone else. . . . never for herself.”  During her wedding ceremony, Poornima notices her husband looking at her in a way she recognizes is not peculiar or unfamiliar:  “It was, in fact, the most familiar look of all.  It was the look of a man:  undressing her, teasing off her clothes, her innocence, ripping it with his teeth, biting at the tender heart of it, and then laughing and cruel, savoring the completeness of his incursion, its terror and its desire.”  Poornima encounters a young girl who admits being afraid of a woman whose face was burned with oil, and Poornima comments, “We girls.  Afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times.  Afraid of a burned face, when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine.  Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes.  Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body.  And infernos.  Infernos as wide as the world.  Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind, even the wind.  Even the wind . . . watching you burn, willing it, passing over you, and through you.  Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.”

Savitha learns the same lessons.  She realizes “that’s all she’d ever been in the eyes of men:  a thing to enter, to inhabit for a time, and then to leave.”   Later, she concludes that “girls . . . was just another word for profit” and “Every moment in a woman’s life was a deal, a deal for her body:  first for its blooming and then for its wilting; first for her bleeding and then for her virginity and then for her bearing (counting only the sons) and then for her widowing.” 

The book is often a harrowing read.  It depicts rape, prostitution, physical and psychological abuse, and human trafficking.  Poornima and Savitha encounter relentless abuse and very few good people.  Men, in particular, are evil.  Any man who has redeeming traits seems to be weak.  The spirits of the two protagonists, however, despite their experiences, continue to burn brightly.  Poornima mentions “How little time it takes to sever the spirit . . . if the spirit is disposed to severing.”  But the strength and resilience of the two is almost unbelievable. 

The last part of the book is also unbelievable because there are just too many convenient coincidences towards the end.  And then there’s the ending itself, one which provides fodder for book club discussions:  is it the perfect ending which allows readers to imagine the next step, or did the author cheat readers? 

I agree that we still live in a patriarchal world full of misogyny but I have more hope than is offered by this book which suggests that women “were never safe . . . not against anything” and to believe that  standing together would protect them, as if “two bodies – the bodies of two girls – were greater than one” was foolish.  At times, the message about the difficult journey of being female is delivered in rather a heavy-handed manner. 

Friday, October 5, 2018

Review of THE FLIGHT ATTENDANT by Chris Bohjalian

3 Stars
Cassie Bowden, an American flight attendant who regularly binge drinks and hooks up with random men, wakes up one morning in a Dubai hotel room next to a dead man, Alex Sokolov.  She decides not to notify the authorities for fear of being accused of his murder and flees to the United States.  Of course, evidence emerges showing her in the man’s company during her layover and the F.B.I. becomes interested in her connection with Alex.  Cassie suspects that a woman named Miranda who visited Alex the night before his death may be responsible.    

The book is narrated primarily from Cassie’s perspective, but there are short chapters showing the point of view of Elena, a female assassin.  Cassie’s narrative becomes repetitive:  she speaks to her lawyer, she is questioned by the F.B.I., she works an international flight, she gets drunk, she does something stupid, she speaks to her lawyer, etc.  Her thoughts are also repetitive:  constant guilt about her drinking and sexual liaisons.  Do we have to read at least seven times that Alex gently washed her hair?

It is very difficult to connect with the protagonist.  She is prone to self-pity, and her constant whining about things that happened in her childhood becomes so annoying.  The ice-cream her mother bought for Cassie’s 11th birthday melted because of the behaviour of her drunken father?  Twenty years later, wouldn’t she have recovered from this event?  She admits that she is a pathological liar:  “’I’m a very, very good liar.  I lie all the time.  I lie to other people, I lie to myself.’”  She steals from hotel rooms:  “She did it because it was, like so much else that made her happy, dangerous and self-destructive and just a little bit sick.”  She is an alcoholic who drinks so much that she embarrasses herself and others and even suffers blackouts, yet she makes virtually no attempt to change.  Even after the events in Dubai, she continues to behave irresponsibly, to drink and pick up men for sexual encounters.  Her lawyer tells her, “’Someday you’ll hit bottom . . . For most people, that would have been Dubai.  Not you, apparently.’”  That lawyer also tells her, “’Just, please, act like a grown-up,’” and I think that reference to Cassie’s immaturity summarizes her character.  She seems to have no redeeming qualities, though I get the impression that her volunteering at a cat shelter is intended to earn her some sympathy from readers. 

There are some things that are just not plausible.  Cassie has been able to keep her job despite her drinking even though American flight attendants are subject to random tests for both drugs and alcohol?    Most hotels now have security cameras in hallways, but the one in Dubai doesn’t?  Most spies eventually become double agents?  How exactly does Elena track the person she is following?  There’s an app for that?  And don’t get me started on the improbable twists in the epilogue.  Given her reputation for instability, it is highly unlikely that Cassie would be asked to do what she does.    

Cassie is an alcoholic who “convinced herself that she wasn’t her father’s daughter and she wasn’t repeating his mistakes.  She wouldn’t let alcohol destroy her the way it had destroyed him.  And for over a decade and a half – until Dubai – on some level she had even believed that.”  She blames her father’s drinking for ruining her childhood, yet she becomes a drunk?  Even after Dubai, her behaviour doesn’t change.  The reader may accept that alcoholism is an inherited disease.  But then, one consequence of her past behaviour, an unlikely one at that, allows her to overcome her addiction? 

The pacing is problematic.  At the beginning, the pace is rather slow because not much happens.  Then we have the author climb on a political soap box in Chapter 21:  “For a time, the United States had shed great crocodile tears for the people of Aleppo, but they understood that Syria – and obviously Ukraine and Crimea – weren’t in their backyard.”  I may agree with Elena who “looked at photos of the presidents in Washington and Moscow and Damascus and thought darkly to herself, this is where it all ends. Here.”   But these observations just seem out of place.  Then the pace seems to speed out of control; so much happens so quickly at the end without sufficient background explanation.

I cannot say that the book is not entertaining, but the protagonist is too shallow and static to earn my sympathy, and there are just too many holes in the narrative to make it exceptional. 

Monday, October 1, 2018

Review of THE MERCY SEAT by Elizabeth H. Winthrop

4 Stars
The events in this novel take place in the course of one day in 1943 in Louisiana.  Eighteen-year-old Willie Jones, a black man, has been found guilty of raping a white girl, Grace Sutcliffe, and awaits his execution at midnight.  Willie had a romantic relationship with Grace but her father discovered them together and had Willie charged with raping his daughter.  The book is narrated from the perspective of various characters:  Willie; Frank, Willie’s father; Father Hannigan, the local priest; Lane, a prison trusty helping deliver the electric chair for the execution; Ora and Dale, owners of a local gas station; Polly, the district attorney; and Nell and Gabe, Polly’s wife and son. 

Though nine characters receive attention, each emerges as a distinct, complex individual with hopes and fears.  Polly, for example, is responsible for successfully prosecuting Willie but he is not to be seen as a villain; he hopes for an eleventh-hour reprieve and we learn that he had little choice but to ask for the death penalty.  And of course, there’s the fact that a guilty verdict is a foregone conclusion:  “’a chipmunk could have had that boy convicted.  It was his word against a white man’s.’”  It is Willie’s skin colour that makes him guilty; Nell points out the injustice:  “’what white man would ever be put to death for rape?’” 

The story left me emotionally drained.  I wept for Frank whose story is that of a father’s grief.  He is determined to deliver a tombstone for his son and to see Willie one last time before his execution, but obstacles keep arising which threaten him as well as his ability to achieve either goal.  I was angry with Dale for his attitude but also sympathized when I learned the secret he fears to share with Ora.  I cheered for Ora as she sets out to help and cried for her as well, knowing how her life would soon be shattered too. 

The author is white and she focuses on the perspective of whites.  There are “’goddamn redneck ignorant pieces of trash’” but there are whites who are conflicted and sympathetic to Willie’s plight.  Unfortunately, even though these latter whites may try to help Willie in small ways, ultimately, they end up failing him.  The dangers of challenging the status quo in the American South of the 1940s are made very clear. 

The prose is lyrical but controlled.  There is no melodrama or sensationalism and that works to make the novel even more powerful.  Its examination of racism and the (in)justice system occurs within the Jim Crow South but, sadly, much of what it reveals is as true today as it was 75 years ago.

I highly recommend this thought-provoking book, though readers should be forewarned that it is overwhelmingly sad.  If you liked To Kill a Mockingbird, you will like this novel as well.