Doorstopper(s) of the Month: Julia Glass (& Umberto Eco)

The Whole World Over by Julia Glass (2006)

When I plucked this from the sidewalk clearance area of my favorite U.S. bookstore, all I knew about it was that it featured a chef and was set in New York City and New Mexico. Those facts were enough to get me interested, and my first taste of Julia Glass’s fiction did not disappoint. I started reading it in the States at the very end of December and finished it in the middle of this month, gobbling up the last 250 pages or so all in one weekend.

Charlotte “Greenie” Duquette is happy enough with her life: a successful bakery in Greenwich Village, her psychiatrist husband Alan, and their young son George. But one February 29th – that anomalous day when anything might happen – she gets a call from the office of the governor of New Mexico, who tasted her famous coconut cake (sandwiched with lemon curd and glazed in brown sugar) at her friend Walter’s tavern and wants her to audition for a job as his personal chef at the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe. It’s just the right offer to shake up her stagnating career and marriage.

One thing you can count on from a doorstopper, from Dickens onward, is that most of the many characters will be connected (“a collection of invisibly layered lives” is how Glass puts it). So: Walter’s lover is one of Alan’s patients; Fenno, the owner of a local bookstore, befriends both Alan and Saga, a possibly homeless young woman with brain damage who volunteers in animal rescue – along with Walter’s dog-walker, who’s dating his nephew; and so on. The title refers to how migrating birds circumnavigate the globe but always find their way home, and the same is true of these characters: no matter how far they stray – even as Greenie and Alan separately reopen past romances – the City always pulls them back.

My only real complaint about the novel is that it’s almost overstuffed: with great characters and their backstories, enticing subplots, and elements that seemed custom-made to appeal to me – baking, a restaurant, brain injury, the relatively recent history of the AIDS crisis, a secondhand bookstore, rescue dogs and cats, and much more. I especially loved the descriptions of multi-course meals and baking projects. Glass spins warm, effortless prose reminiscent of what I’ve read by Louise Miller and Carolyn Parkhurst. I will certainly read her first, best-known book, Three Junes, which won the National Book Award. I was also delighted to recall that I have her latest on my Kindle: A House Among the Trees, based on the life of Maurice Sendak.

All told, this was quite the bargain entertainment at 95 cents! Two small warnings: 1) if you haven’t read Three Junes, try not to learn too much about it – Glass likes to use recurring characters, and even a brief blurb (like what’s on the final page of my paperback; luckily, I didn’t come across it until the end) includes a spoiler about one character. 2) Glass is deliberately coy about when her book is set, and it’s important to not know for as long as possible. So don’t glance at the Library of Congress catalog record, which gives it away.

Page count: 560

My rating:

 

I started Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (1983) with the best intentions of keeping up with Annabel’s buddy read. The first 50–100 pages really flew by and drew me into the mystery of a medieval abbey where monks keep getting murdered in hideous ways. I loved the Sherlockian shrewdness and tenacity of Brother William; the dutiful recording of his sidekick, narrator Adso of Melk; and the intertextual references to Borges’s idea of a library as a labyrinth. But at some point the historical and theological asides and the untranslated snippets of other languages (mostly Latin) began to defeat me, and I ended up just skimming most of the book. I’d recommend this if you liked Samantha Harvey’s The Western Wind, or if you fancy an astronomically more intelligent version of The Da Vinci Code.

A favorite passage: “Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means”

My rating:

14 responses

  1. I loved The World Over, bought to bring back memories of a New Mexicao holiday. I might just have to read it again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I spent a week in New Mexico (Santa Fe & Taos) in the summer of 2005 and would love to go back. I loved how Glass switched between ranch country and New York City.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. NYC is another lure for me! I’ve had three holidays in that part of the world although only one in New Mexico itself, the others in Arizona and Utah. I love that landscape.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Never read any Julia Glass! Is Three Junes the one to start with?

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    1. It’s widely regarded as her best book, but I didn’t feel I needed that background to read this one as my first. Until the very end I had no idea that a character from Three Junes recurred in this one, but it didn’t seem to matter.

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  3. I LOVED both Three Junes and The Whole World Over. It’s been a long time since I read either one. I’m behind on her last couple of books too. But these are treasures. I’m glad you enjoyed The Whole World over so much.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I remember you spied this in my stack when I first bought it and said it was a good one. You were right! 🙂

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  4. Glass has definitely made it onto my ‘must read’ list. Eco’s book’s been on the list (and on my shelves for goodness’ sake) for ages.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I have a few Julia Glass books in the 746 -Three Junes is there I think. I didn’t know what to expect but I think I’ll give her a try soon.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m not sure that Julia Glass is one for me. I agree there was just too much of the theological in The Name of the Rose, but I did really enjoy re-reading it, thank you for giving it a good try alongside me. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I just loved this Julia Glass novel (more than Three Junes, but I was glad that I read that one first, even so). And I felt that the crowded-ness of the world she creates was wonderful: I just wanted to know more. It was the kind of story which made me simultaneously feel like objectively there was too much detail and subjectively there was not enough because I wanted to know all of it! Are you planning to read more soon?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. A House Among the Trees is on my Kindle, though that’s certainly no guarantee that I’ll read it soon! (I have around 400 titles on there at any one time.)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I know what you mean. I’m terrible for not reading e-books. The print copies win every time!

        Liked by 1 person

    2. I hoard NetGalley and Edelweiss advance e-copies but then (in many cases, at least) never read them. I just find it easier to engage with a big stack of print books. I do have a Kindle book on the go at all times, though — for reading during solitary meals and/or travel.

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