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the cure for everything is salt water

(review copy courtesy of the publisher)

(review copy courtesy of the publisher)

As the temperature took a turn for the cold here last week, I prowled through my book collection in search of something that would give me one more deep breath of summer. J. Courtney Sullivan’s Maine came out a few months ago, and it’s been waiting patiently for me ever since. Book covers are amazing things. They can hold sixty years of pain and explosive arguments and seething resentment without leaking a drop, and months later, they unleash it and the chill in the air vanishes.

The Kellehers are summer people. Early in their marriage, a lucky bet brought Daniel and Alice Kelleher a cottage and three acres of oceanfront land. Since then, the humble cottage has been joined by a glamorous “big house” and the Kelleher siblings each have their own scheduled month so that they can avoid each other. Four Kelleher women alternate perspectives throughout the novel: Alice, the widowed matriarch, whose devout Catholicism and deep pain manifests itself in coldness toward anyone who gets to know her too well; Kathleen, Alice’s eldest daughter, who left the east coast for California and avoids seeing her mother at all costs; Maggie, Kathleen’s daughter, who is on her way to stay at the cottage when her life falls apart; and Ann Marie, married to Alice’s son Pat, a perfectionist who dissolved into motherhood and copes with empty-nest-dom by decorating extravagant dollhouses.

Two motifs snake throughout the book. One is alcoholism; drinking is a minefield of emotion in Maine. Alice and Ann Marie both drink extravagantly at times, and Kathleen is sober after years of alcoholism. Every drink in the book is there for a reason. Another echoing theme is motherhood itself, especially for the characters in the book who often regretted having children. Maggie, in her thirties and considering single parenthood, is a crucible for Alice’s and Kathleen’s ambivalence about motherhood and Ann Marie’s Stepford-Mom experience.

And then there is Maine itself, the land and the houses and the cold ocean water. The Kellehers did not have to scrimp to establish this summer retreat, and yet it is theirs… well, it’s Alice’s, right now, with Daniel gone. Ann Marie feels it should be mostly her family’s, because she and her husband built the big house and have paid for most of the upkeep. Kathleen could care less about it, even though it sheltered her at a time when she needed it most. For Maggie, it will be the place where she makes the most important decision of her life… surrounded by women who cannot speak the truth to each other or themselves.

The book takes its time getting all four women to the beach at once, but when it does, all of Sullivan’s work makes sense. The conversations sound like real conversations between people who have secrets to keep and who have had the same arguments with each other for decades. There is a shorthand in the dialogue that eliminates backstory and cuts right to the surface of what each woman wants and does not want to reveal. When arguments happen in Maine, they’re almost electrifying, especially the insults that issue rapid-fire from the pit of venom beneath Alice’s charming veneer. I love that Maine never fixes what it doesn’t have to; not every wound is healed by the time the book ends, but the resolution is satisfying and honest. I hope you read it, and I hope you don’t wait as long as I did.

(The title of the review is a riff on the quote by Isak Dinesen: “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.”)

the widow, the stranger, and eternity

Many thanks to Crown for the review copy.

Many thanks to Crown for the review copy.

The fortune of my life affords me tons of happiness. And I don’t know about you, but sometimes—and only sometimes, mind you—being fully aware of my happiness backfires, and I become acutely aware of all its opposites. I get a huge dose of dread (this is going to end) and panic (how can I live when this ends) and fear, fear, fear. Oh, and obviously, a healthy bit of paranoia. I have a husband who rides a bike to work in all sorts of weather along a road packed with distracted rush-hour drivers. Every day he comes home is a miracle. When I imagine a day that he doesn’t, the after-effects of even this hypothetical situation stay with me for longer than I like to admit. So when I picked up Before Ever After and learned that the main character’s husband was going to die, I tried not to get too attached to him. Samantha Sotto, the author, had other plans for me.

Widowhood is not treating Shelley kindly; she cannot seem to make significant strides toward rejoining the world. But five years after her husband Max died in the terror bombings in Lisbon, a stranger visits her—a stranger who looks so strikingly similar to Max that she cannot send him away. The stranger, an Italian named Paolo, tells Shelley that he’s seen evidence that Max is alive, making his legendary baked eggs and cheese in a tiny restaurant on an island in the Philippines. Even more unbelievable: Paolo believes that Max is his grandfather. Paolo presents photos showing Max from thirty years ago, looking the same as he did the last time Shelley set eyes on him. (Sotto, a Doctor Who fan, evokes the occasional inquisitive mind that finds photos of The Doctor at various points in history, never aging, always observing.) How could Max, who shared with Shelley such a beautiful and all-consuming love, stay away from his despondent wife for so long? Paolo persuades Shelley to fly with him to the Philippines to get the answers for herself. 

During the long flight to the other side of the world, Shelley tells Paolo about The Slight Detour, the guided tour through various destinations in Europe where she first met Max. At each stop along The Slight Detour Max tells a story set in the immediate surroundings and pertaining to a particular family tree. The tour begins in Paris with the death of Isabelle, who gave her life in 1871 to protect a child during the brief and turbulent rule of the Paris Commune. Slowly, Shelley is drawn into the evocative tales of Isabelle’s family, moving backward through time at every successive stop on the tour. And at each stop, Shelley and Max grow closer together. 

One of the great joys of

Before Ever After

is the privilege of watching Shelley break down every powerfully commitmentphobic instinct in exchange for a love that is moving to read about, one that occasionally veers into the treacly but overall remains compelling. Once she breaks those instincts down, though, she gives all of herself, so it’s all the more heartbreaking to think that Paolo might be right, that Max might have voluntarily stayed away. The mystery of the man Paolo found in the Philippines is unraveled slowly, carefully, through millennia, and it is a mark of Sotto’s skill that the many time threads (extending from Isabelle’s sacrifice to the storming of the Bastille in 1789, to the Emmental Valley in Switzerland in 1522, to the Schottenstift Monastery in Austria in 1210, to the Ljubljanica River in Slovenia in 958, to Altinum in what is now northern Italy in 568, and all the way back to Herculaneum at the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79) are never confusing to follow. 

I can’t be objective about

Before Ever After

; I enjoyed the experience of reading such a genuinely dizzying ride through alternating moments of happiness and gut-wrenching loss. I have never read anything quite like it and did not expect to enjoy it as much as I did. The book’s narrative is almost tropically lush but leavened by the zippy dialogue of the characters. Though it has some elements in common with

The Time Traveler’s Wife

, I found it more logically told and less self-consciously literary. I think it’s a perfect book for the last half of summer, a book for reading outdoors with the ones you love not too far away and with a tomato salad in your near future. These transitory things are the most precious, no matter what DeBeers would like you to believe.

Before Ever After

 by Samantha Sotto

Crown Publishing—on sale August 2, 2011

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bad things and spilled blood

One of my favorite things in the lovely spinning world is the opening title sequence for True Blood. Here, in case you haven’t seen it:

Notably missing from the opening is Sookie Stackhouse herself, who is a bouncy ray of sunshine, and all of the other Bon Temps residents who come with hearts of gold. The video drags you through a combination of profound religious devotion and equally profound depravity while the effects tint the visuals with sun-drenched dust and noise. I think if I tell you that reading The Devil All the Time is like a book-length version of that ninety-second sensory orgasm, you will want to read it. But there’s more to it that.

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Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.Arvin Russell grows up in Knockemstiff Holler in rural Ohio with his parents, the beautiful Charlotte and devout Willard. When Willard came home from World War II, he hid the stories of the atrocities he had witnessed. But as Arvin grows older, he learns how to fight from Willard, who does not seem to extend his religious devotion to allowing God to punish those who trespass against him. When Charlotte develops cancer, Willard (by now a problem drinker) turns to prayer and disturbing ritual to try to save her.

After a time jump, Arvin is living with his grandmother Emma in West Virginia, in another rural community. He’s a teenager now, scarred by his childhood, quiet but given to explosions of violence just like Willard had been. Emma is also raising Lenora, the daughter of a murdered woman. Lenora, an awkward teen often mocked by classmates, brings out the protective instincts Arvin learned from his father’s devotion to his mother. The West Virginia sections of the book also introduce us to preacher Roy Laferty, who eats spiders during his service while his wheelchair-bound cousin Theodore accompanies him on the guitar.

Back in Ohio, Carl Henderson waits for his wife Sandy’s two-week vacation from work. Carl’s passion is photography, and when he and Sandy get the chance they hit the road with camera and film. Of course, then they pick up hitchhikers, Carl offers Sandy’s favors in exchange for some explicit pictures, and then murders their night’s model. A few miles down the road, they’ll find another one. By the time Donald Ray Pollock draws all these characters together in the last pages of his novel, they have all been pushed past personal breaking points into primal desperation.

The Devil All the Time is set in a world where pleasure is almost foreign, something for people who don’t live where these characters do. Sex is cheap, life is short and brutal, and the hope of some salvation after death is the only reason to keep drawing breath. It’s simultaneously stylish and plain-spoken, almost rawboned in its structure but told with a keen enough eye to hint at Pollock’s sense of humor. Enough work went into it to make it feel effortless.

This is probably not the sort of book you can picture me recommending based on the other books I’ve reviewed here. But I do, I really do recommend it if this description intrigues you. It is an unbelievably dark book, and if you’re looking for something to dip into idly that won’t stay with you the rest of the day, maybe this isn’t right for you after all. This book spoke to me, though. It was an immersion into a world I could never have imagined and people whose morality is defined by completely different rules than my own. By the end of The Devil All the Time love feels like an alien concept, something outside of survival instead of intrinsic to it. Somehow, it made me crave it more.

The Devil All the Time | Donald Ray Pollock

Doubleday (July 12, 2011)

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no, no, not that Mrs. Darcy

Thanks to Algonquin books for the review copy.

Thanks to Algonquin books for the review copy.

I don’t read as many short stories as I used to. When I opened up Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, I raced through the first one and then the second that first night, and then I had to force myself to take my time. One story a night, I promised myself. And so I took in a story at a time, each one different but also familiar.

Each story in Mrs. Darcy is set in the American south, but the main characters are both male and female, young and old and in-between. Some of the stories feel more like vignettes and others are more fully plotted, with crises and resolutions. Each details a moment or two in which the main character slips from a familiar world into a new one. Whether trepidation, optimism, or despair comes along with that sea change is different for each protagonist.

In “House Tour,” Lynn is at home alone looking forward to a glass of wine from a box when a gaggle of Red Hat Society members gently bully themselves into her house, mistakingly believing it’s part of a civic tour of homes. Lynn, a Yankee whose marriage has a few nicks in its veneer, is swept away by her impromptu guests, who peek into her rooms and force her into conversation and ghost stories. In the middle of their visit, Lynn’s husband, the supercilious playwright Lawrence, comes home.

“Ladies…” Lawrence begins, then pauses. “Ladies, pardon me. But could you explain your attire to me, please? Are you members of a club? An organization?”

“Not really,” Rita says.

“We’re a disorganization,” Georgia explains. “The only rule is that you have to be over fifty. And basically we’re all tired of doing things for other people. We just want to have some fun. We’re releasing our inner child,” she adds.

Lawrence laughs, a short, abrupt bark.

Oh no, Lynn is thinking. Now he will destroy them.

“Intensive Care” is the story of Harold, a successful man who has left his wife, money, and children to take up with the woman who was once his teenage crush, Cherry Oxendine.

Lois ought to know. She’s been right there during the past six weeks while Cherry Oxendine has been in Intensive Care, writing down Cherry’s blood pressure every hour on the hour, changing bags on the IV, checking the stomach tube, moving the bed up and down to prevent bedsores, monitoring the respirator—and calling Rodney Broadbent, the respiratory therapist, more and more frequently. “Her blood gases is not by twenty-eight,” Lois said in the Beauty Nook. “If we was to unhook that respirator, she’d die in a day.”

“I would go and do it then, if I was Harold,” said Mrs. Hooker, the Presbyterian minister’s wife, who was getting a permanent. “It is the Christian thing.”

“You wouldn’t either,” Lois said, “because she still knows him. That’s the awful part. She still knows him. In fact she peps right up ever time he comes in, like they are going on a date or something. It’s the saddest thing. And ever time we open the doors, here comes Harold, regular as clockwork. Eight o’clock, one o’clock, six o’clock, eight o’clock, why shoot, he’d stay in there all day and all night if we’d let him. Well, she opens her mouth and says Hi honey, you can tell what she’s saying even if she can’t make a sound.”

There are so many more I want to tell you about. There’s “Tongues of Fire,” about a young girl who begins going to a Charismatic church with a friend’s family and develops a fascination with the practice of speaking in tongues. In “Fried Chicken,” a woman whose favorite son is in prison for murder tries to find meaning in her life by preparing his favorite meal. Jeffrey, the young boy at the center of “Toastmaster,” is out to dinner with family when he overhears a group of boisterous diners practicing joke after joke, and though he’s always felt invisible, he’s overcome with the desire to be seen. The title story is the last one in the book and a fitting capstone, featuring the eponymous Mrs. Darcy, who ruffles her grown children’s plans to install her in a nursing home during a summer by the beach. In all of the stories, Smith gives us characters we can understand, even the ones who hurt the ones they love. After all, that’s something that almost all of us have done and will do again.

I missed this book when it came out in hardcover last year, but I’m so glad I got the chance to read it now. Lee Smith’s talent is one that I think of as quintessentially Southern, and not just because that’s where all the stories in the collection are set. Her writing is genteel, handling each of her characters with compassion and a bless-your-heart and the zest of true wit and humor. There’s something more to it than her voice, though. Reading Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger is like going to a wonderful dinner party at a well-kept home. Everything sparkles; everything shows the polish of maintenance and care. The company is just the right blend for lively conversation. The food is exquisite, a feast for the eyes and the nose as well as the palate. And at the end of the night, when your hostess hands your coat back and you take your leave, she accepts your thanks gracefully while never giving the slightest hint of how much work it took to pull off the evening.

Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger (paperback, May 2011)

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the healing power of steam

Many thanks to Gallery Books for the review copy (via Netgalley)

Many thanks to Gallery Books for the review copy (via Netgalley)

I’m going to tell you to read this book. And I know some of you are looking at that cover and thinking OH NO IT IS A FOOD BOOK. But you do not have to know, or care, how to chop an onion to understand The Kitchen Daughter. All you have to know is the way it feels to fear a future without everything you know and love.

Ginny is a young woman who’s lived with her parents all her life. They have protected her from the outside world, keeping her supplied with ingredients and cookbooks so that she can cook to her heart’s content. In her circumscribed world, her Asperger’s Syndrome is easy to manage. But then both parents die in an accident, and a post-funeral crowd descends on Ginny’s home. In her panic, she retreats to the kitchen, desperate to feel in control of something. She takes out her grandmother’s recipe for ribollita and crushes tomatoes, slices kale. She simmers and breathes deeply, and looks up to see the ghost of her grandmother in the kitchen. Somehow, she has developed the power to call up the dead when she cooks.

I have read a few books with autism-spectrum protagonists; some work for me better than others. Ginny works for me remarkably well. Although it is sometimes vexing to be trapped within her point of view, she always feels genuine. Her intelligence shines through her fear of new things, and yet she never achieves a premature insight. The book is about her struggle, and she struggles mightily. Ginny’s sister Amanda decides to sell the family home—the only place where Ginny feels safe—and to bring Ginny to live with her and her family. Ginny refuses to go. But since she’s never had to interact much with the outside world, she’s going to have to learn to fend for herself in ways that she’s never really considered before. And that will mean learning to be around other people, to communicate, to ask for what she needs and to give of herself to others. McHenry’s success is that Ginny is still Ginny at the end of the book, but she’s Ginny with a few after-market parts.

It’s impossible to write about The Kitchen Daughter without talking about food. Food is Ginny’s language; she interprets the world through her senses with a vocabulary based on ingredients and the application of heat. She understands transformation, the way onions go from hard white shards to tangles of golden sweetness. Almost everything she confronts is compared to an ingredient, even down to a man whose bald head reminds her of a moist chicken breast and whose breath is like bean water. Ginny retreats to the kitchen for self-care; it is the one place where she is in control, where “normal” is not as important as what tastes best to Ginny. So yes, it is A FOOD BOOK, but only in the sense that food is what Ginny knows, and to learn to understand Ginny is to learn a little about cooking. (As many a grandmother has said, it won’t kill you.)

That concept of normalcy is at the heart of The Kitchen Daughter. The magic realism elements are carefully employed to heighten Ginny’s journey from sheltered kitchen daughter to sturdy kitchen woman. By the end of the book, food is not only something for her to work on and learn about and obsess over; it’s also something to also share with the ones she loves. Jael McHenry has done a remarkable job in characterizing Ginny and giving her the kind of story arc that allows her to grow while remaining true to herself. I think you should read it, and allow Ginny to frustrate you and to bring out your protective instincts and to feed whatever part of your soul needs a little hot ribollita.

The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry is on sale tomorrow, April 12.

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