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give me a southern storm

Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Many thanks to Doubleday for the review copy.

Sometimes when I read I want a book full of quiet, meaningful elegance that steps very carefully into every word. Sometimes, though, my life gets a little too quiet and I want something different, a storm of a book that blows out windows and leaves ruin in its wake. InThe Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, there’s a hurricane that makes landfall four times, coming back for more destruction every time folks think the coast is clear. The rest of the book is the same way. 

Marylou Ahearn is 77 years old and she has murder on the brain. Back in 1953, she was given a “vitamin” drink at an OB visit when she was pregnant with her daughter Helen. Ten years later, Helen died of a terrible cancer. The vitamin drink was actually radioactive, a substance administered to hundreds of low-income women who visited that clinic for pregnancy care. After fifty-three years, she’s tracked down the man responsible for Helen’s death: Dr. Wilson Spriggs, who conducted the experiment at the behest of the US government during the Cold War paranoia. She leaves her home in Memphis and travels to Tallahassee, where Wilson lives with his daughter and her family. When she gets there, her plans for revenge take a turn she didn’t expect—Wilson is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, and Marylou’s retaliation doesn’t pack quite the same punch when the victim can’t quite remember the crime he committed.

Time for Plan B: Marylou will just have to destroy his family, instead. Wilson’s daughter Caroline Witherspoon is struggling with hot flashes and fading youth; her husband Vic is a hapless sort who seems out of his element both at home and at work, especially when it comes to a sexually aggressive colleague. Their oldest daughter, Ava, wants simultaneously to fit in and to immerse herself in books about Elvis Presley. Their son Otis is obsessed with creating a nuclear device in their backyard shed. Both Otis and Ava have Asperger’s. And their youngest daughter, thirteen-year-old Suzi, is a social success and soccer star, but can’t seem to get her mother’s attention. This disconnected family is ripe for Marylou’s infiltration and assault.

The book is titled

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

—emphasis on the Revenge. This is Marylou’s story in that she is the one who starts many of the events in motion (although she’d say that Wilson started it, really, what with his toxic Kool-Aid and all). But the book is about an already unknit family falling further and further apart, with Marylou picking not-so-idly at each loose thread. Even once Marylou begins to know the Witherspoons, and to like them more than a bit, her plan to ruin them is always at the heart of her every action. It would have been easy (and predictable) for Stuckey-French to have Suzi’s charm and affection melt Marylou’s murderous heart, but instead the old woman’s actions become even more aggressive. As a tropical storm builds into a hurricane, the Witherspoon family will have to come together to save Wilson’s life, but the radioactive lady has one more trick up her sleeve.

The most fully-fleshed characters are the children, all of whom struggle with adolescence in realistic, moving ways. Ava senses the limits that Asperger’s has forced upon her but doesn’t quite know how to struggle against them. She’s impulsive, given to angry fits and childish behaviors that hold her back from making a connection with others. Otis delves so deeply into his radioactive pastime that he cannot truly see how dangerous it is, but this single-minded dark pursuit attracts the interest of a goth girl whose family is bad news. Suzi’s athletic skill may keep her approval rating high in her dad’s eyes, but she really wants a woman’s care. Since her mother is immersed in Ava’s treatment, Suzi is ripe for Marylou’s affectionate attention—attending Marylou’s creepy strip-mall church and starting down a path that might destroy her.

The cover makes it look like a much lighter, more madcap book than it is. Blurbs from other authors compare it to the work of Carl Hiaasen and to

Little Miss Sunshine

, and I can see why those comparisons work; all of these are about a collection of wildly disparate weird people who risk losing everything that matters to them. There’s something endearing and funny about watching weird people try to keep a yoke on their weirdness, although

Revenge

is by no means broad. I loved the experience of identifying with Marylou, who does absolutely reprehensible things to people she quite likes because she’s spent fifty years plotting a murder she’s as incapable of committing as Hamlet was incapable of killing Claudius. She cannot just let go of the plan to do violence to either Wilson or his own, because in her head she’s conflated that vengeance with her memory of her child.

I enjoyed reading

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

so much. It’s stylish and thought-provoking, and the Witherspoons are a kind of dysfunctional family I love to read about. They aren’t wasting all their energy putting on a veneer of competence. And it broke through a long winter of complacent reading and gave me a good old-fashioned southern storm.

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

, Elizabeth Stuckey-French

(Doubleday)

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Everywhere Else

on the badness of little girls

I remember being a little girl. In fact, I remember sometimes being a terror of a little girl. I wasn’t bad because my mother raised me badly (she didn’t) or because my dad died, and I wasn’t bad all the time. I grew out of it and became a decent person eventually, but for a long time I reveled in being bad. I didn’t rob convenience stores or anything—I was just devious and mean in a way that seemed to generate its own energy. I gravitated toward fraught friendships with other mean little girls, ones who were sometimes even worse than me, and I had a knack for bringing out the bad sides in good girls. So I come to The False Friend with more than just passing interest.

Thanks to Doubleday for the advance copy.

Thanks to Doubleday for the advance copy.

Celia is going about her normal business when she is blasted with a memory she didn’t even know she had. Over twenty years ago, her best friend and nemesis, Djuna, went missing. Although signs pointed to a kidnapping, Celia’s new memory tells a different tale. This time, Celia is to blame. When she returns to her hometown to find evidence that supports this new version of the truth, Celia is confronted with the little girl she was back then.

Celia and Djuna were volatile children, constantly jockeying for leadership roles in their clique. They are at the same time passionately devoted to each other and given to fights that can silence an entire playground. As Celia has lived with the ramifications of Djuna’s disappearance all her life since then, she has become a nicer person— cold in some ways, but certainly far from a terror. The new memory exposes fissures in Celia’s listless relationship with long-term partner Huck, and try as she might she cannot make her parents believe that she is to blame for the tragedy. In fact, the more people she talks to, the more it appears that even Celia’s new memory may not be quite the truth.

Friendship means something different when you’re a child. In adulthood, a friend raises you up, brings out the best parts of you. A friend is a comfort, not someone who makes things worse. As a little girl, you cling to what’s there—the thought of ending a friendship is a horror of unknowns. Who will still be there on your side? Who will your ex-friend keep? What will be said about you behind your back? To see the poisonous relationship that Celia and Djuna kept feeding is to see that its end, no matter how premature, is the one good thing to come out of Djuna’s disappearance.

Writing this review is difficult because I want to go on and on about this book. The problem is that you haven’t read it yet and I don’t want to tell you anything that might spoil the mystery of what really happened to little terrifying Djuna Pearson. (And really, you don’t want to read a review that long.) But I want to say this much: Anyone who ever was a little girl, whether you were good or bad or friendless or a mini-Djuna yourself, will disappear into Goldberg’s story. It’s not a comforting book, but it is challenging, absorbing, and assertively written. It will go quickly. And it will make you grateful for your good friends.

The False Friend is coming out in early October. Now’s a good time to request it at your local indie or to pre-order it online. You can read more about it here at Myla Goldberg’s website.

leaving... and coming back

Many thanks to Atria for the review copy.

Many thanks to Atria for the review copy.

When Jane was thirteen, she said something I also said from the time I was very young: “I am never getting married and I am never having children.” When I said that, people laughed and told me I’d change my mind. (I did, but only about marriage.) When Jane said it, her father took it to heart. Hearing his daughter announce her disdain for marriage and family, he left his wife and child the next day. Her mother has never let her forget it.

Jane doesn’t let her absentee father and passive-aggressive mother keep her down, though. She becomes an accomplished Lit prof, even though nothing’s ever easy for her with men or with her career. When level-headed Jane winds up in a relationship with mercurial film buff Theo, even she isn’t wholeheartedly confident about their future. And then, of course, there’s a baby. Theo, never father material to begin with, embarks on a bizarre get-rich-quick scheme with a slinky film distributor. And though until this point we’ve seen Jane handle lots of very rough situations, she’s not prepared for the ocean of bad heading her way. When it lands squarely upon her, she has no choice but to leave the world. Try as she might, though, she won’t get her way. The world isn’t ready to let go of Jane. In fact, she’s going to prove essential to several people she’d never have met if she had given up when she did.

It’s never easy to read about someone who struggles with depression and miserable circumstances. I know some people who reviewed it on Goodreads were bothered by the relentless run of bad circumstances that Jane had to deal with. But without miserable circumstances, there just isn’t a book. Without conflict, trial, and something to defeat, you just have a character traipsing through a field of wildflowers. It’s not so much what Jane suffers—and oh, she really suffers—but how she processes her suffering, the ways she fails, how she gets up the next day. While it’s not a gritty, urban novel where poverty is at the root of most social problems, it was just as wrenching for me to read. Leaving the World takes its characters up a level on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and reminds us that, just because we have a roof over our heads and food on the table, it doesn’t mean that our struggles are any less harrowing or that our mistakes are any less catastrophic.

In Jane Howard, Douglas Kennedy gave me an intelligent female protagonist who wasn’t a cold fish, socially inept, or cutesy-quirky; a woman who was deeply troubled without being weak and who made grievous errors of judgment but didn’t come across as stupid while doing so. The book is unabashedly commercial yet delves deeply into the human condition. Jane is a whole woman, a character I’d want to be friends with. It’s awful of me to admit that I never expect a male author to give me this much emotional resonance, and it’s rare when one does. Leaving the World was a wonderful surprise of a read and I can’t wait to read more of Kennedy’s work.

a thousand autumns

I won this copy of  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  in a Goodreads contest.

I won this copy of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in a Goodreads contest.

It’s not usual for me to take two weeks to read a book. It’s true that this one is long, but it’s also such a rich and involving read that I didn’t want to rush. And that really almost never happens. I’ve been waiting for the chance to tell you about it, and since it goes on sale tomorrow, today is the perfect day.

I received The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet in late April, after the mildest winter I’ve known since I moved to Canada. I remember that I had started reading something else, but Myron and I went for an walk after dinner and stopped at the mailbox—what a wonderful surprise to find it waiting for me only two days after finding out it was coming. That beautiful evening, I practically pranced around on our walk through the neighborhood waiting to get home and sail into it. 

In late 1799, young Jacob de Zoet takes a position with the Dutch East India Company, hoping to return in a few years with the fortune it will take to win his sweetheart. But things are not that easy—once he arrives in feudal Japan and becomes fascinated with the marred beauty of an intelligent midwife, he is drawn in to a startling secret that I don’t even want to hint at because I want you to discover it for yourself. And then, once he’s drawn in, the way it changes his life will engross you and make you proud you know him until you remember that he is a fiction.

The two weeks of cool spring days I spent in Jacob’s world were heightened by the effect of reading David Mitchell’s prose. I took the book everywhere, on every bus, in every restaurant; I stayed up late and got up early to spend time in this world. And yet it broke every rule for what I usually like in a book. There is only one major female character. It’s set in a time in which I know absolutely nothing about the history. The Japanese names had me at a bit of a loss for the first hundred or so pages (there are a lot of characters in this book, and a lot of them have long names, and the best thing you can do is learn as many of them as you can quickly). And it’s far from light—I usually like to read a story like this in the winter when I can tuck in and concentrate. With all those rules broken, it was like a charming child who can get away with anything by flashing a grin. I devoured it. 

After a slowish start while I tried to get the Dutch names straight, and then the Japanese ones, it all came together. As the story picked up—as Jacob negotiates with the powers that be on the man-made island of Dejima, as he copes with his growing attraction to midwife Orito, as he struggles with life in a culture that is not his own while retaining his sense of himself—as I saw all the threads of the story being tied together, it was like the experience I had reading Cloud Atlas (another of Mitchell’s books that turned me into a happy evangelist). I read it carefully. I didn’t want to miss anything. And I didn’t want to leave, but I ran out of pages.

If you ever find yourself in the mood to spend a long time in a book’s world, and you don’t mind spending a fair portion of that time in the kind of fog that means you don’t know what’s coming next, this is an incredible treat. Here is a link to an excerpt of it at the Times; you’ll see what I mean about the many names. Trust me; they come together. And it’s a revelation when they do.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a book here; in keeping with the theme of the site, though, I’m only going to do it when I really, really like a book, and a free copy doesn’t buy a good review from me. I think The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is a beautiful thing. It is a lovely favor for your intelligence, which has worked very hard lately, don’t you think?