Today I’m featuring three more works of fiction that were released this month, as a supplement to yesterday’s review of Mrs Death Misses Death. Although the four are hugely different in setting and style, and I liked some better than others (such is the nature of reading and book reviewing), together they’re further proof – as if we needed it – that female authors are pushing the envelope. I wouldn’t be surprised to see any or all of these on the Women’s Prize longlist in March.
The Charmed Wife by Olga Grushin
What happens next for Cinderella?
Grushin’s fourth novel unpicks a classic fairy tale narrative, starting 13.5 years into a marriage when, far from being starry-eyed with love for Prince Roland, the narrator hates her philandering husband and wants him dead. As she retells the Cinderella story to her children one bedtime, it only underscores how awry her own romance has gone: “my once-happy ending has proved to be only another beginning, a prelude to a tale dimmer, grittier, far more ambiguous, and far less suitable for children”. She gathers Roland’s hair and nails and goes to a witch for a spell, but her fairy godmother shows up to interfere. The two embark on a good cop/bad cop act as the princess runs backward through her memories: one defending Roland and the other convinced he’s a scoundrel.
Part One toggles back and forth between flashbacks (in the third person and past tense) and the present-day struggle for the narrator’s soul. She comes to acknowledge her own ignorance and bad behaviour. “All I want is to be free—free of him, free of my past, free of my story. Free of myself, the way I was when I was with him.” In Part Two, as the princess tries out different methods of escape, Grushin coyly inserts allusions to other legends and nursery rhymes: a stepsister lives with her many children in a house shaped like a shoe; the witch tells a variation on the Bluebeard story; the fairy godmother lives in a Hansel and Gretel-like candy cottage; the narrator becomes a maid for 12 slovenly sisters; and so on.
The plot feels fairly aimless in this second half, and the mixture of real-world and fantasy elements is peculiar. I much preferred Grushin’s previous book, Forty Rooms (and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, one of her chief inspirations). However, her two novels share a concern with how women’s ambitions can take a backseat to their roles, and both weave folktales and dreams into a picture of everyday life. But my favourite part of The Charmed Wife was the subplot: interludes about Brie and Nibbles, the princess’s pet mice; their lives being so much shorter, they run through many generations of a dramatic saga while the narrator (whose name we do finally learn, just a few pages from the end) is stuck in place.
With thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for the free copy for review.
Outlawed by Anna North
I was a huge fan of North’s previous novel, The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, which cobbles together the story of the title character, a bisexual filmmaker, from accounts by the people who knew her best. Outlawed, an alternative history/speculative take on the traditional Western, could hardly be more different. In a subtly different version of the United States, everyone now alive in the 1890s is descended from those who survived a vicious 1830s flu epidemic. The duty to repopulate the nation has led to a cult of fertility and devotion to the Baby Jesus. From her mother, a midwife and herbalist, Ada has learned the basics of medical care, but the causes of barrenness remain a mystery and childlessness is perceived as a curse.
Ada marries at 17 and fails to get pregnant within a year. After an acquaintance miscarries, rumours start to spread about Ada being a witch. Kicked out by her mother-in-law, she takes shelter first at a convent and then with the Hole in the Wall gang. She’ll be the doctor to this band of female outlaws who weren’t cut out for motherhood and shunned marriage – including lesbians, a mixed-race woman, and their leader, the Kid, who is nonbinary. The Kid is a mentally tortured prophet with a vision of making the world safe for people like them (“we were told a lie about God and what He wants from us”), mainly by, Robin Hood-like, redistributing wealth through hold-ups and bank robberies. Ada, who longs to conduct proper research into reproductive health rather than relying on religious propaganda, falls for another gender nonconformist, Lark, and does what she can to make the Kid’s dream a reality.
Reese Witherspoon choosing this for her Hello Sunshine book club was a great chance for North’s work to get more attention. However, I felt that the ideas behind this novel were more noteworthy than the execution. The similarity to The Handmaid’s Tale is undeniable, though I liked this a bit more. I most enjoyed the medical and religious themes, and appreciated the attention to childless and otherwise unconventional women. But the setup is so condensed and the consequences of the gang’s major heist so rushed that I wondered if the novel needed another 100 pages to stretch its wings. I’ll just have to await North’s next book.
With thanks to W&N for the proof copy for review.
little scratch by Rebecca Watson
I love a circadian narrative and had heard interesting things about the experimental style used in this debut novel. I even heard Watson read a passage from it as part of the Faber Live Fiction Showcase and found it very funny and engaging. But I really should have tried an excerpt before requesting this for review; I would have seen at a glance that it wasn’t for me. I don’t have a problem with prose being formatted like poetry (Girl, Woman, Other; Stubborn Archivist; the prologue of Wendy McGrath’s Santa Rosa; parts of Mrs Death Misses Death), but here it seemed to me that it was only done to alleviate the tedium of the contents.
A young woman who, like Watson, works for a newspaper, trudges through a typical day: wake up, get ready, commute to the office, waste time and snack in between doing bits of work, get outraged about inconsequential things, think about her boyfriend (only ever referred to as “my him” – probably my biggest specific pet peeve about the book), and push down memories of a sexual assault. Thus, the only thing that really happens happened before the book even started. Her scratching, to the point of open wounds and scabs, seems like a psychosomatic symptom of unprocessed trauma. By the end, she’s getting ready to tell her boyfriend about the assault, which seems like a step in the right direction.
I might have found Watson’s approach captivating in a short story, or as brief passages studded in a longer narrative. At first it’s a fun puzzle to ponder how these mostly unpunctuated words, dotted around the pages in two to six columns, fit together – should one read down each column, or across each row, or both? – but when all the scattershot words are only there to describe a train carriage filling up or repetitive quotidian actions (sifting through e-mails, pedalling a bicycle), the style soon grates. You may have more patience with it than I did if you loved A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing or books by Emma Glass.
A favourite passage: “got to do this thing again, the waking up thing, the day thing, the work thing, disentangling from my duvet thing, this is something, this is a thing I have to do then,” [appears all as one left-aligned paragraph]
With thanks to Faber & Faber for the free copy for review.
Tomorrow I’ll review three nonfiction works published in January, all on a medical theme.
What recent releases can you recommend?
I’ve not participated in Kate’s Six Degrees of Separation meme before, although I’d seen it around on other people’s blogs. I think all this time I’d misunderstood, assuming that you had to go from the start point to one particular end point. Instead, bloggers are given one book to start with and then have free rein to link it to six other books in whatever ways. Most of the fun is in seeing the different directions and destinations people choose. I am always drawing connections between books I read and noting coincidences (e.g., my occasional Book Serendipity posts), so this is a perfect meme for me! I’m very late in posting this month – for a while I was stuck on link #4 – but next month I’ll be right on it.
#1 Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner: I didn’t care for this debut novel about a crumbling marriage and upper-middle-class angst in contemporary New York City. A major plot point is the mother going missing, just like in Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple, a very pleasing epistolary novel I read in 2013.
#2 There’s also an absent Bernadette in Run by Ann Patchett (2007), which opens with a killer line: “Bernadette had been dead two weeks when her sisters showed up in Doyle’s living room asking for the statue back.” (Alas, I abandoned the novel after 80 pages; it has a lot of interesting elements, but they don’t seem to fit together in the same book.)
#3 Ann Patchett wrote for Seventeen magazine for nine years. Before she ever published a novel, Meg Wolitzer was a winner of Seventeen’s fiction contest. Wolitzer’s The Wife (2003), my current book club read in advance of our March meeting, is a bitingly funny novel narrated by a woman trapped in a support role to her supposedly genius writer husband.
#4 I’ve heard great things about the recent film version of The Wife, which has Glenn Close as Joan Castleman. Close also stars as the Marquise de Merteuil in Dangerous Liaisons (1988). The 1782 Choderlos de Laclos novel was one of the texts we focused on in one of my freshman college courses, Screening Literature. For our final projects, we compared a few film adaptations. My group got Cruel Intentions (1999), a teen flick that provided one of Reese Witherspoon’s breakout roles.
#5 Witherspoon is giving Oprah a run for her money with her Hello Sunshine book club, which has chosen some terrific stuff. I happen to have read nine of her picks so far, and of those I particularly enjoyed Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid.
#6 Daisy is said to have been inspired by the personal and professional complications of the band Fleetwood Mac. The musical roman à clef element isn’t necessary to understanding the novel, but is fun to ponder. In the same way, Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler features a musician modeled after singer/songwriter Bon Iver. I adored Shotgun Lovesongs and have a review of it coming out as part of Friday’s post, so consider this your teaser…
And there we have it! My first ever #6Degrees of Separation.
Have you read any of my selections? Are you tempted by any you didn’t know before?
I’ve fallen behind on the weekly prompts for Nonfiction November, but wanted to post a follow-up to my 2018 list of a baker’s dozen of memoirs I’ve read that explore women’s religious experiences. I’ve read a couple more this year that are worth adding to the list; in addition to their themes of doubt and making a new life outside the church, they also share an interesting detail: it’s an online friend that goads each author into questioning her beliefs. Even if you aren’t typically interested in this subgenre, you’ve likely heard of Unfollow because of the high-profile story behind it. (This week is hosted by Katie of Doing Dewey.)
Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope, Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church by Megan Phelps-Roper
“God hates f*gs.” If you know one thing about Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, it’s that this slogan plastered their signs and was part of their armory of in-your-face chants at nationwide protests.
Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in the Church, which was founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, and made up mostly of her extended family: Phelps had 13 children, and Phelps-Roper is one of 11. In 1989 Phelps learned that nearby Gage Park was a gay cruising spot and wrote in disgust to the mayor and other city officials. In a sense, he never got over it. The anti-homosexuality message would become Westboro’s trademark, at least until the church started its picketing of military funerals after the Iraq War – which, like 9/11, was interpreted as being God’s just punishment of American immorality.
By portraying it from the inside and recreating her shifting perspective from early childhood onwards, Phelps-Roper initially makes her extreme upbringing seem normal. After all, it’s the only thing she knew, and it never would have occurred to her that her family could be wrong. The Phelpses were fiercely intelligent and also ran a law firm, so it’s impossible to just dismiss them as redneck idiots. Frequent passages from the King James Bible appear in italics to echo the justifications the Church cited for its beliefs and actions.
Only gradually did doubts start to creep in for the author as various uncles and brothers left the church. Phelps-Roper was even the voice of Westboro on Twitter, but defending funeral protests became increasingly difficult for her. Two things brought her to a breaking point. First, in something of a coup, the Church appointed a new body of elders – all male, of course – who instituted ever more draconian rules, such as a dress code for women, and effectively removed her mother from leadership. (Ultimately, they would kick the dying Fred Phelps himself out of the church.) Secondly, the Church started to spread fake news via doctored photos. For example, they claimed to be protesting a royal wedding in London, when in fact Westboro members never go anywhere the First Amendment can’t protect them.
All along, Phelps-Roper had been corresponding with “C.G.,” an online acquaintance with whom she played Words with Friends. Chad gently encouraged her to ask why Westboro believed as it did, and to unpick rather than ignore any doctrines that didn’t make sense. “What if we’re wrong? What if this isn’t The Place led by God Himself? What if we’re just people?” she wondered. In November 2012, she and her sister Grace left the Church and the family home, where she’d lived until age 26, and retreated to a Deadwood, South Dakota Airbnb to hike, read and think about what they’d left behind and what came next. I’d had just about enough of Westboro and its infighting by that point in the book – the chapter about her leaving gets a little melodramatic – so, like the author, I was glad to move on to another setting, and this interlude ended up being my favorite section.There’s much more I could say about this memoir, as the path out of fundamentalism is one I’ve taken, too, and the process of rebuilding a life outside it is ongoing for me, as it is for Phelps-Roper, who now lobbies for empathy across religious and political lines. The sense of a family divided is reminiscent of Tara Westover’s Educated, whose readership Unfollow is keen to secure. At points the book feels overlong (the chapters certainly are), but the good news for anyone who might feel reluctant to tackle it is that a film version is in the works, with a screenplay by Nick Hornby and Reese Witherspoon producing.
Note: Westboro was the subject of a Louis Theroux documentary in 2006, and in a nice full-circle moment, he’s now interviewing Phelps-Roper on some of her UK book tour spots. And, in another lovely aside, she married C.G.
With thanks to riverrun for the free copy for review.
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life by Amber Scorah
Like In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott, this is the story of growing up in a cult and what happens when, as an adult, a woman has to build a new life free from the constraints – but also unmoored from the comforting framework – of a previously unquestioned belief system. Scorah grew up in Vancouver’s community of Jehovah’s Witnesses and, although she was temporarily disfellowshipped as a teenager for having premarital sex, the faith was her home and gave her a sense of purpose. Witnesses are discouraged from attending university or pursuing careers; without exception, they’re expected to preach and win converts – the only task worth engaging in given that the world is headed towards Armageddon.
Scorah and her husband went to China as clandestine JW missionaries. Her Mandarin skills were good enough that she could become friends with her English-language pupils and then start to talk to them about religion. In the meantime, she became an early podcast host with the program “Dear Amber,” which offered advice on the Chinese language and culture. She embarked on a flirtatious correspondence with one of her regular listeners, Jonathan from Los Angeles, who goaded her into rethinking everything she’d been taught to believe. “I was questioning with a mind that had been trained not to. It was highly uncomfortable.”
As her marriage and faith simultaneously crumbled, Scorah had to decide what was left to form the foundation of a new life on her own in New York City. “My eye-glazing peace, unquestioning contentment, and eternal life were gone, and the time ahead of me was filled with people I didn’t yet know, uncertainty about the future, and, one day, death.” I was absorbed in the bittersweet outworkings of this before and after: a process of losing faith and deciding what’s next.
The final chapter is a whirlwind tour through her first years in NYC, including the tragic death of her infant son, Karl. This makes for something of an abrupt end to the book; I might have liked to get as much detail on all this as we got about the time in China. But it was clearly a deliberate decision to present such life and death matters from a hard-won secular perspective, without the false balm of a religion that promises she’ll see her son again. There’s a lot of secrecy about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so this is a rare insider’s view as well as a wrenching account of loss and starting over.
Full disclosure: Amber Scorah offered me a copy through a Facebook group we are both a part of.
Thanks to her and Viking for sending a free copy for review.
Can you see yourself reading either of these books?
“this was not just a book, but a weapon”
It’s the latest Reese Witherspoon book club selection and film rights have been sold to the producers of La La Land; if you haven’t already heard about The Secrets We Kept, you’ll be hearing a lot more soon. Prescott’s debut novel is an offbeat spy thriller set mostly in the 1950s and based on the international reception of Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. Considered to express anti-Soviet opinions, Pasternak’s love story is suppressed in his native country but published widely in Western Europe and further afield. The Central Intelligence Agency, in the belief that books are one way to change ideologies in the long term (“They had their satellites, but we had their books”), decides it is important to make Doctor Zhivago available in its original Russian in the motherland, and duly enrolls two female spies – who have been masquerading as a typist and a receptionist – in the scheme.
First-person narration duties are shared by Olga Vsevolodovna, Pasternak’s lover and the inspiration for Lara in Doctor Zhivago; Irina Drozdova, a new secretary at the Agency; Sally Forrester, the more experienced spy who takes Irina under her wing; Teddy Helms, Irina’s first trainer and would-be romantic interest; and the typist pool as a whole. I have a special love for the first-person plural voice, used as a kind of observant chorus. Here it doesn’t work perfectly: Chapter 17 unnecessarily recaps information readers had already gleaned, while Chapter 20 is a clunky way of revealing more. But the ‘we’ of the title is not just these all-seeing typists (who reminded me of the secretaries in Mad Men), but also Sally and Irina, as well as Olga and her family, who often suffer for their connection with Pasternak. The epilogue carries things through to the present in a hopeful, almost whimsical way.
There’s a lot to appreciate about The Secrets We Kept, including the prominent roles played by women, the surprising place given to a same-sex relationship, and the glimpses into publishing and literary history. Prescott might have included more about Doctor Zhivago itself, though. The plot will most likely be unfamiliar to today’s readers. (I saw the film nearly 20 years ago and remember nothing.) Including more passages and some careful plot summary might have tempted more readers to try Pasternak’s work as we approach the 60th anniversary of his death in 2020. Still, this is in a very easy-reading style that lends itself to binges, and it nicely bridges the gap between literary fiction and spy stories.
Recommended to: Readers of Jessie Burton and Whitney Scharer; viewers of The Americans.
The Secrets We Kept was published by Hutchinson on September 3rd. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
We’re relieved to be back in the balmy UK after a sweltering week in northern Italy. Though our sixth-floor Airbnb apartment in Milan suited our needs perfectly, it was a challenge to keep it minimally comfortable. Eventually we worked out that it was essential to get up by 6:30 a.m. to close the balcony doors and shutter. The bedroom happened to be shaded, so I could set up my laptop in there and work until noon, when it was time to close out the heat of the day on that side. In the afternoons I read and napped on the divan, and then sometime between 6 and 10 p.m., depending on how sunny it had been during the day, we could fling the windows and doors wide open again. Fans helped, but we still passed some horribly muggy nights.
My husband was at his conference for four of the days, so we only braved the city centre itself on Monday morning, touring the Duomo and climbing the steps to the roof. This was well worth doing for views over the city. Afterwards we walked through the associated museum (mostly underground, and blissfully cool with air conditioning) and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a luxurious nineteenth-century shopping arcade filled with designer fashions.
Two day trips by train got us out of the city and into slightly cooler temperatures: on Wednesday we explored Varenna and Bellagio on Lake Como, and on Saturday we took a bus and cable car from Lecco into the mountains at Piani d’Erna. We took full advantage of one-euro espressos and glasses of wine, and ate lots of pizza, pasta and gelato.
After much deliberation, this is the book stack I actually packed for our trip. I got through the first half of the Orwell, an excellent account of working as a dishwasher in Paris hotels and having to scrape together enough money to ward off starvation. I’ll be writing it up as my Classic of the Month in a couple of weeks. I also read Sunburn by Laura Lippman, which I’ll hold in reserve for a summer-themed post, and (on Kindle) So Many Rooms by Laura Scott, a debut poetry collection coming out in October that I’ll review here at a later date.
Two of my other Kindle reads ended up being perfect for the setting:
From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home by Tembi Locke: This was the perfect book for me to read during the week in Italy. Not only is it set largely in Sicily, but it ticks a lot of boxes in terms of my reading interests: food, travel, bereavement, and the challenges of being an American overseas. During a semester abroad in Florence, Locke (an actress I was previously unfamiliar with) met and fell in love with Saro Gullo, an Italian chef. His parents could hardly accept him marrying someone from outside of Sicily, let alone a black woman from Texas, and refused to attend their wedding. But as the years passed they softened towards Locke, who gradually became accepted in Saro’s hometown of Aliminusa.
In fact, after Saro’s death from bone cancer in 2012, she became like a second daughter to Saro’s mother. The book focuses on the three summers in a row when she and her adopted daughter Zoela traveled to the family home in Sicily to stay with Nonna. I particularly appreciated the exploration of what it’s like to live between countries and cultures. This is one of three Reese Witherspoon book club books I’ve read so far (along with Where the Crawdads Sing and Daisy Jones and the Six), and all have been great – Reese’s recommendations are proving as reliable as Oprah’s.
A mudslide blocked the route we should have taken back from Milan to Paris, so we rebooked onto trains via Switzerland. This plus the sub-Alpine setting for our next-to-last day made the perfect context for racing through Where the Hornbeam Grows: A Journey in Search of a Garden by Beth Lynch in just two days. Lynch moved from England to Switzerland when her husband took a job in Zurich. Suddenly she had to navigate daily life, including frosty locals and convoluted bureaucracy, in a second language. The sense of displacement was exacerbated by her lack of access to a garden. Gardening had always been a whole-family passion, and after her parents’ death their Sussex garden was lost to her. Two years later she and her husband moved to a cottage in western Switzerland and cultivated a garden idyll, but it wasn’t enough to neutralize their loneliness.
Much of what Lynch has to say about trying to find genuine connections as an expatriate rang true for me. Paradise Lost provides an unexpected frame of reference as Lynch asks what it means for a person or a plant to be transplanted somewhere new, and what it takes to thrive. Her elegant writing reminded me of Diana Athill’s and Penelope Lively’s, and the exploration of the self through gardens is reminiscent of Allan Jenkins’s Plot 29.
Other successful reads:
Confessions of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell: This picks up right where The Diary of a Bookseller left off and carries through the whole of 2015. Again it’s built on the daily routines of buying and selling books, including customers’ and colleagues’ quirks, and of being out and about in a small town. I wished I was in Wigtown instead of Milan! Because of where I was reading the book, I got particular enjoyment out of the characterization of Emanuela (soon known as “Granny” for her poor eyesight and myriad aches and gripes), who comes over from Italy to volunteer in the bookshop for the summer. Bythell’s break-up with “Anna” is a recurring theme in this volume, I suspect because his editor/publisher insisted on an injection of emotional drama.
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert: There’s a fun, saucy feel to this novel set mostly in 1940s New York City. Twenty-year-old Vivian Morris comes to sew costumes for her Aunt Peg’s rundown theatre and falls in with a disreputable lot of actors and showgirls. When she does something bad enough to get her in the tabloids and jeopardize her future, she retreats in disgrace to her parents’ – but soon the war starts and she’s called back to help with Peg’s lunchtime propaganda shows at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The quirky coming-of-age narrative reminded me a lot of classic John Irving, while the specifics of the setting made me think of Wise Children, All the Beautiful Girls and Manhattan Beach. The novel takes us to 2010, when Vivian is 90 and still brazenly independent. I was somewhat underwhelmed – while it’s a fairly touching story of how to absorb losses and make an unconventional family, I wondered if it had all meant much. I’ll be expanding this into a Shiny New Books review.
Judgment Day by Sandra M. Gilbert: English majors will know Gilbert best for her landmark work of criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (co-written with Susan Gubar). I had no idea that she writes poetry. This latest collection has a lot of interesting reflections on religion, food and art, as well as elegies to those she’s lost. Raised Catholic, Gilbert married a Jew, and the traditions of Judaism still hold meaning for her after husband’s death even though she’s effectively an atheist. “Pompeii and After,” a series of poems describing food scenes in paintings, from da Vinci to Hopper, is particularly memorable.
Vintage 1954 by Antoine Laurain: Dreadful! I would say: avoid this sappy time-travel novel at all costs. I thought the setup promised a gentle dose of fantasy, and liked the fact that the characters could meet their ancestors and Paris celebrities during their temporary stay in 1954. But the characters are one-dimensional stereotypes, and the plot is far-fetched and silly. I know many others have found this delightful, so consider me in the minority…
As well as a few DNFs…
What Dementia Teaches Us about Love by Nicci Gerard: I’ve read a lot of books about dementia, both clinical and anecdotal, and this doesn’t add anything new. (11%)
The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux: I read the first 32 pages, up to when Theroux arrives in northern Italy. He mostly describes his fellow passengers, as well as the details of meals and sleeping arrangements on trains. The writing struck me as old-fashioned, and I couldn’t imagine getting through another nearly 350 pages of it.
Out of the Woods by Luke Turner: Attempts to fuse nature and sexuality in a way that’s reminiscent of Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler. The writing didn’t draw me in at all. (5%)