Confession: I love reading and I want part of this blog to be about reading and writing. However, I realized that the way I was previously talking about books wasn’t working. This isn’t about writing a paper on the book; it’s about sharing with you guys. And so I am trying a new format; at the end of the month, I’ll share a brief review on the four books I read that month. This month it’s a coincidence that all four books are written by women. But I am not complaining, not one bit. In fact, you can’t really go wrong with any of these book; it just depends on what you like. I enjoyed all of them, would recommend all of them, and learned different things from each of them. So let’s get to it.
Atwood won the well deserved Booker Prize for this novel and I will admit to picking it up and putting it down a couple of times in the past years. Not because it is bad. Far from it. It’s because this is a novel within a novel. It sounds very complicated but it isn’t. You just need to pay attention. The book starts from Iris’ point of view: “Ten days after the war ended my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” (Atwood, 1). Throughout the book there is the story of clandestine lovers, two young girls growing up, an elderly woman trying to make sense of it all. It’s part romance, part mystery, part coming of age. Besides the enemies in human form (and they are awful), time is enemy: the lovers against time (will they be caught?), Iris trying to finish the story so we can finally get the whole story before she dies, and the young woman with so many if onlys. Why did Laura kill herself? Who are the lovers? Iris races against time to try and finish the story so we can know, telling us, “without memory, there can be no revenge” (Atwood, 508). Boom, this lady knows some people who deserve to eat that well known dish best served cold.
The prose is magnificent. As always, Atwood is a master. It’s hard to pick examples to show you because there are so many. Iris says, “In life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge” (417). Read this. Read this. Read this. 5 Stars. No question.
This is the story about a group of kids at an arts camp and their lives that follow. They name themselves The Interestings because, “they were only fifteen, sixteen, and they began to call themselves the name with tentative irony” (Wolitzer, 3). Julie, one of the main Interestings feels like an outcast at camp and in life: “Irony was new to her and tasted oddly good, like a previously unavailable summer fruit…Fairly soon after that, the snideness would soften, the irony would be mixed with seriousness, and the years would shorten and fly. Then it wouldn’t be long before they all found themselves shocked and sad to be fully grown into their thicker, finalized adult selves, with almost no chance of reinvention” (3). In a way, that sentence summarizes the book because their lives are chronicled through adulthood. I will tell you I laughed and I cried. I could relate. It held my attention which is not easy, when a book spans the lifetime of some teenagers. I learned a lot about pacing as a writer. Wolitzer does an excellent job of moving the book along so one never feels stuck. The timing just makes sense which isn’t easy when chronically several people’s lifetimes.
My only criticism is that some really serious things were not given enough weight. Without giving anything away, the example of Julie’s father is a good one. In the first pages we find he died of cancer. Julie is pretty flippant about this in my opinion. At times, Julie or should I saw Jules (as she is dubbed by The Interestings), wonders why it doesn’t affect her much which could be used as great characterization if not for the fact that very serious topics in the book are handled with the same flippancy by the characters, if not the author. Still, it was an amazing book I could not put down. 4 stars.
This is the second book in French’s series. I read and reviewed In the Woods here. Here is the thing, I don’t read a lot of mystery books because…well, typically mystery writers don’t care as much about the actual prose. They are more story focused. I will read anything if the prose is beautiful. In French’s case, her books are part of a series where one can recognize some characters but it’s wholly unconnected to In the Woods. First of all, the con: the basis of this story is impossible. Cassie, the main character, was undercover a long time ago as Lexie Madison. One night, a chick named Lexie Madison is murdered. Yes, someone stole Cassie’s undercover identity years after she got off that particular job. Now Lexie–the identity Cassie and the Irish police created–is dead. So far so good. Here comes the bad part: the dead girl looks exactly like Cassie. Which means the girl who stole the made up identity of Lexie also happens to look exactly like Lexie aka Cassie, the police officer. So naturally Cassie goes undercover in the house Lexie shared with three other roommates because they are the main suspects, pretending to be Lexie (they are able to figure out a way where dead Lexie was only injured Lexie) to impersonate the girl who impersonated her. Yes. That is the story.
Now ignore that really lame synopsis because the writing is really good. It’s probably the best mystery writing I’ve ever read. As Cassie enters the house for the first time to become Lexie, she says, “Frank turned and looked back over his shoulder, waiting for me. My hand was on the door handle when for a split second out of nowhere I was terrified, blu-blazing terrified, fear dropping straight through me like a jagged black stone falling fast. I’d felt this before, in limbo instants, before I moved out of my aunt’s house, lost my virginity, took my oath as a police officer: those instants when the irrevocable thing you wants so much suddenly turns real and solid, inches away and speeding at you, a bottomless river rising and no way back once it’s crossed. I had to catch myself from crying out like a little kid drowning in terror, I don’t want to do this anymore. All you an do with that moment is bite down and wait for it to be over” (French, 91). Characterization is great in this book. That was my biggest take away.
Her best passages come when she is talking about the relationships within the house–even as they are suspects she falls in love with the love they have with one another and the familiarity. Cassie/Lexie wants to be known. Where do her loyalties really lie? I would normally give this 4 stars but with company here, I would give it 3. But is that fair?
Ursula is born in 1910, dying the same night with the cord wrapped around her neck. And yet she is born again. And again. And again. Each time with a different story. Each time with a stronger sense of the older stories: “She was prone to these sensations, as if a memory was being tugged reluctantly out of its hiding place. She presumed it was the same for everyone” (Atkinson, 488). Again, incredible writing is here.
I read in a few places, about this book, where people complained that it was redundant since Ursula is born again and again. I found that to be completely untrue. Some episodes are quick, some are longer. Each of them is profoundly different. If you love history, you will love this book–spanning WWI, WWII, and run ins with Hitler. Literally. I will say it took me a few (short) chapters to understand the pacing but every time Ursula lives again is very different, whether she is trying to write a past wrong or whether it is a new adventure. 4 stars
Have you read any of these? What did you think? Do any of them strike your fancy? If you had to choose one, which one would you read?