“Keeping Lucy” by T. Greenwood

Genre:         General FictionKeeping Lucy
Publisher:    St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:   August 6, 2019

The latest novel by T. Greenwood, author of “Rust & Stardust,” is about a heartbroken mother who gave up her baby girl born with Down Syndrome.  That sounds too harsh.   Let me clarify.  The year is 1969, when women gave birth while under anesthesia.  While still under the influence of the ether, and pressure from her doctor, husband, and father-in-law, the baby, who she named Lucy, is taken from her.  Her husband tells her she is going to a boarding school for the developmentally disabled and that visitations are not recommended since it would confuse the child.  She believes this is what is best for her daughter.  Two years later she learns through the newspapers that the school is actually an institution currently under investigation for all sorts of abuse (the author does a good job with visuals of the abused children).  Still, there are lots of pulling on the heartstrings type of drama that simply didn’t feel real.

It didn’t feel believable, at least to me, because the mother does a complete one-eighty.  She and her friend go on a “Thelma and Louise” sort of adventure to kidnap Lucy.   They go on the run with a broken down car and nowhere to go.  This is done to save Lucy from going back to the fictional Willowridge School.   I am sure that the author chose that name on purpose for its similarities to the infamous Willowbrook State School.   Do you remember that downright evil school located in Staten Island, NY?  I do because as a teen I went to demonstrate against the place.  “The horrors endured at the Willowbrook State School will never be forgotten. Built for developmentally disabled children and adults in the 1930s, the school became an institution where the borough’s most vulnerable residents were abused, starved and neglected…”— January 17, 2017, https://www.silive.com/news/2017/01/the_horrors_of_willowbrook_sta.html

Once the mother character learns the true nature of the school, her maternal instincts kicks in.  I want to know where those feelings have been for the past two years of Lucy’s life.  I believe that the story is about a depressed woman, totally under her husband’s thumb, who finally learns to think and do for herself.   But the writing is not up to par with the author’s last novel, which was a historical fiction.  There are so many clichés in this book, complete with an ending tied up in a bow, that I often rolled my eyes.   Maybe my own experience with such an institution is the reason why I found the story unbelievable.   Parents who left their children in such a horrible place were not the type to look back.  I am sure others may enjoy this novel, but it wasn’t for me.

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“Baby of the Family” by Maura Roosevelt

Genre:           Literary FictionBaby of the family
Publisher:    PENGUIN GROUP Dutton
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

The author, Maura Roosevelt, is the great-granddaughter of Eleanor and Franklin.  Her novel is about a fictional modern-day American dynasty, the Whitbys.  I admit the author’s own family lineage is what captured my eye in choosing this book to review.  The fictional Whitbys will make you think of the once enormously wealthy real-life Astor family.   In the past, the Astors were known as “The Landlords of New York.”  I love how this novel begins:  First, with a quote from George W. Bush: “When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish.”  Then, in the book’s opening, we learn that the always-foolish, current family patriarch, Roger Whitby Jr., dies after squandering away a fortune.   We learn that, half a century prior, a Whitby death would’ve made headlines around the world—not anymore.  The reader immediately knows that we will be entering the world of Roger’s offspring and their children as they learn to live minus the billions.

Roger Whitby Jr. has many children from four marriages that all ended in divorce.  (The author added in a family tree, which is a nice touch).   After his death, he bequeaths what is left of the fortune to his last son, who is adopted, as well as the baby in the family.  This naturally becomes the tension in the story.  The reader will become familiar with three of his children, each from a different marriage, who play major roles in the novel.  They are half-siblings but still, they share the same feeling of abandonment.   In these three, we learn that the story is not actually about the inheritance, but rather the half-siblings’ childhood and adult struggles that stem from being a member of a famous clan (Heh, I can’t help but wonder about the author’s motives for writing this book).

I believe that Roosevelt attempted to write a novel on family love and healing.  If so, that is not what I read.  Basically, this is a poor little rich kid tale.  There are so many subplots with each grown child that I became confused, which led to lack of interest.  Spoiler:  One daughter, in her early twenties (in the first job of her life) is clearly being sexually abused by the man she works for, yet I didn’t feel the anger that I should have felt.   Her story gets lost in between the others.  This is a shame as the novel has such potential.  It reminded me of Jonathan Franzen’s novel “The Corrections.”   There are strong similarities (meaning lots of Tolstoy-like soap).  I am not comparing the talents of the famous Russian author to either of these current day writers.  I am trying to say that Roosevelt’s “Baby” is missing the American Gothic feel that “Corrections” managed to catch.

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“Clock Dance” by Anne Tyler

Genre:           Literary FictionClock Dance
Publisher:    Penguin Random House
Pub. Date:    July 10, 2018

“Clock Dance,” the latest novel by the author Anne Tyler, affectionately known as the bard of Baltimore, is filled with her familiar themes and quirky characters, but it is not up to par with her earlier works.  The gist of the book is that the heroine has four defining moments of her life, which is categorized into four years.   The reader only gets flashing glimpses of the first three defining moments, which is part-one.  I found this annoying.   Characters come and go as if they are walk-ons in a play.  However, once the novel is completed, the reader will get what Tyler was up to— a slow start with a strong finish.  I enjoyed the novel though I am not sure that the threadbare writing, which she is known for, isn’t too bare in part-one.

Part I:  In 1967, our heroine is a schoolgirl wondering what happened to her unstable mom who has disappeared.  She is too young and frightened to cope.  In 1977, she is a college student flying home with her bossy fiancé.  Suddenly, on the plane, the man sitting on the other side of her whispers, “This is a gun, and it’s loaded.  Move and I shoot.”  Once again she is too frightened to act.  When the flight is over the man just gets up and leaves.  She informs her soon to be husband what happened, and although she is shaking with fear, he tells her that she is being histrionic and that “all’s well that ends well.”  She agrees.  (This was hard to buy,  because although she is subservient, she is not stupid.)   In 1997, she is a young widow too traumatized to do what needs to be done to move forward.  In 2017, she is married, once again to another bossy man who patronizes her.   By this time in her life, she is way too timid, mild-mannered and insecure in her abilities to handle almost any situation by herself.  She is more than willing to be a passive bystander in her own life.  As a female reviewer, I wanted to jump into the pages and scream at her to grow a spine.

Part II continues in 2017, it is the bulk of the book and where all its strength lay.  But by this time, I was almost ready to give up on our heroine.  Which I wonder is what the author intended the reader to feel.  But, in 2017, our heroine surprises us.   She finally takes a stand in her own life and learns she is cable of making not only the simplest of decisions but the major ones as well.  For fear of spoiling, I will not share how her wake-up happens, but it is almost comical.  As usual, Tyler’s warmth for her characters shines through.    I am a fan of the author.  Still, I almost ditched the novel.   If Tyler did intend for a slow start, hoping that it would pay off in the second half of the book, then she made a heck of a gamble.  Or, maybe part-one was not written to be intentionally maddening.   Possibly, Tyler didn’t realize just how frustrating part-one actually read. Though, this is also hard to buy since Tyler is a Pulitzer Prize winner.  No matter, either way, I am glad I read her latest work.  Though I am not sure other readers will feel the same.  Still, I recommend the novel to fans of literary fiction.

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“The Great Believers” by Rebecca Makkai

The Great BelieversGenre:          General Fiction
Publisher:    Penguin Group Viking
Pub. Date:   June 19, 2018

The Grim Reaper follows all in this novel.  Think of Scrooge without a happy ending.  The author, Rebecca Makkai, writes about the 1980s AIDS outbreak.  The novel is set in the heart of Chicago in an area known as Boystown.   There are two storylines, told in alternating chapters: one is in the 1980s and the other is in present time.  The book opens in the past.  We meet a close-knit group of friends, most of them gay men, attending a “celebration of life” party after the death of one of their own.  Across town, the actual funeral is going on in a Catholic church.  Since the parents didn’t invite their deceased son’s lover to the funeral, the friends have their own sort-of-service for him.  The whole gang is at this party including his straight, younger sister.  She disowns her parents and family the way they disowned her older brother.  Her brothers’ friends adore her.  She often says that she has100 older brothers.  In the present, the little sister is now a middle-aged woman searching for her estranged daughter, who may or may not have joined a cult.  She has the help of one last brother who survived the epidemic.  He is now in his eighties.  I smiled when they first laid eyes on each other for the first time in many years.  They each had the exact same thought—how can he/she be so old?

The author does a good job describing the terror of the early years of the virus.  The kid sister watches her brothers die one by one.   You might cry because you will grow fond of these men.    Some have big personalities.  Others have sweet and shy ways.  They come from all walks of life, and the author makes sure you get to know each character as if you met them personally.   If you do not cry, you will still feel the heartbreak of the times.  The agony of making the decision to take the test, waiting on the test results, waiting for the symptoms, and then waiting for a horrendous death.  Makkai also shows the emotional scars on the present-day lives of survivors.  The sister has had a life of depression, which of course affected her adult relationships as well as her mothering skills.  The author is so passionate on the subject of HIV/AIDS that it came as no surprise to learn that the disease has touched someone in her life.

The story is good, but not on the level of “The Boys in the Band.”   “Believers” reads similar to “The Philadelphia Story.”   You will cry, but you are aware that the author is manipulating your heartstrings.  My only issue in the novel is in the present when the focus is on the sister’s search for her daughter.  This extra plot wasn’t needed.  It reads like a private detective tale that in no way could compete with the superior story told while in the past.  Overall, this is a well written, ambitious historical novel of a horrible time in America when very few Americans felt compassion for those who were locked in the jaws of the disease.  It wasn’t uncommon to hear that God sent this disease to punish the immoral.  It was the gay men’s isolation (no one would even physically touch them) that hit me the hardest.  They only had each other.  This is a huge-hearted novel display the staggering toll of the epidemic.  And, although it is a story is about death, once completed, you will have a stronger sense of life.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Distance Home” by Paula Saunders

Genre:          General FictionThe Distance Home
Publisher:    Random House
Pub. Date:   August 7, 2018

What a mistake I made with this one.  I read that the author is Paula Saunders and silly me only registered the first name.  I accepted this ARC thinking I was going to read a new Paula McLain novel, an author that I admire.  It just took me a few paragraphs to realize my mistake.  I’d say that I made a beginner reviewer’s mistake, but unfortunately, I am not a beginner anymore in this craft.  Live and learn.

The novel’s setting is in the 1960s, we meet two sisters attending their father’s funeral.  They are the surviving members of a Midwestern family of five—mother, father, older brother, older, and younger sisters.  Do not expect to like the parents.  They infuse so much psychological damage in their older two children that later in their offspring’s lives they are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress.   In a nutshell, the father has no tolerance or love for his son, probably because he is interested in becoming a ballet dancer.  Though, he very much enjoys that his elder daughter also loves to dance.  Because the father is so uncaring about his son and shines towards his elder daughter, the mother goes in the opposite direction.   Her allegiance is to the son, while she is extremely critical of the elder daughter.  The youngest daughter barely shows up in the plot.  I am not sure at all why she was added into the novel.

I’m a reviewer that doesn’t need to like the characters to enjoy the story.  That is not my issue with this novel.   I simply found the whole story flat and the characters too one-sided.   The only part of the tale that kept my interest is that the story-line goes back and forth in time, without any advance warning.  In one paragraph, you will be reading about the young teenage son pulling out his eyebrows and eyelashes, and in the next paragraph, you will get a glimpse into the future while he is in addiction rehab.  It is there that he learns that he is bipolar; a condition that went untreated his whole life.  While the teenage son is clearly not doing well, the older sister becomes an anorexic overachiever. It appears to her parents that the older sister is doing just fine but the reader knows better.   The entire plot revolves around the family’s day to day warped dynamics.  The author hints at the idea that the parents simply didn’t know any better.   The old saying that “they did the best they could” is applied to them.  This seems to be the reason that the elder sister came to forgive them both before they died.   But I will be damned if I know why.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Country Dark” by Chris Offutt

Genre:         Literary Southern Gothic
Publisher:  Grove AtlanticCountry Dark
Pub. Date:  April 10, 2018

Literary Southern Gothic is a new genre for me.  I have always enjoyed a good Gothic read, but had no idea what Southern Gothic meant?   So, I googled, and learned that it’s not Southern vampires (or at least not in literary southern gothic, though I’m sure that’s out there too).   To my surprise, the books in this genre include: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” and, “A Streetcar Named Desire”— well actually, just about all of Tennessee Williams’ work.   This means it is some of my favorite books that became some of my favorite movies.  So I am guessing that a story is in this classification as long as the setting is in the South, and the story contains violence, poverty, social issues, romance and a hint of noir.

I was expecting a stellar read since the author, Chris Offutt, has been awarded the Whiting Writers Award for Fiction/Nonfiction and the American Academy of Arts and Letters Fiction Award, among numerous other honors.  And, a tense and atmospheric stellar read is what I got.   It is written dark and taut and set in rural mid-century Kentucky.   The protagonist is a husband and father who would do whatever it takes including murder, to keep, to his family housed, fed, safe and most importantly all together.  At times, the protagonist reminds me of some city gang member from the TV show “The Wire,” fierce and shrewd, except our man’s evenings are not lit up with streetlights.   His nighttime is mountain hollers dark.   And, rather than city slang, his words are in Kentucky-speak.

We meet him when he is returning home from the Korean War covered in metals.  The boy can shoot.   He meets his future wife while she is about to be raped by her uncle, who is the local sheriff.  She is fourteen-years-old, and he is eighteen-years-old.   He rescues the girl, and she asks him not to kill her attacker since he is kin (that just about sums up the people who live in the hollers—if you are one who possesses Appalachian morals).  This is the beginning of one of the toughest, yet sweetest love stories that I have ever read.   They marry and have a bunch of kids.  He makes a living by running moonshine.  They need more than most since four of their six children were born with disabilities.  The first thing the country smart, female social worker did was make sure there wasn’t any interbreeding.  There wasn’t.   Since there are no signs of abuse, this caseworker does what she can to help them.  The not-so-country smart, male caseworker wants to put their disabled children in homes.  Both mother and father are devoted parents.  You can guess what happens here, which is the start of even more hardship for the family.  Although he is meaner than a rattlesnake, and she is tougher than nails, both manage to hold on to their human decency, which I am not sure many could do while living in such dire conditions.  You will root for this family that has underdog charm.

The story actually begins about here and this is all you should know for fear of spoilers.  I will share that Offutt routinely shifts points of view, feelings, and tones within tense.  The writing can be as playful as it is brutal, which can take you by surprise.  Will this novel become a classic such as, “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” or “To Kill a Mocking Bird?”   I doubt it.   It’s missing what can be found in the other books: The racial southern tension with good trying it’s best to triumph.  Is “Dark Country” a spellbinding read that you will not soon forget?   The answer to this question is most certainly yes.

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“The Madonna of the Mountains” by Elise Valmorbida

Genre:           Historical FictionMaddonna of the Mountains
Publisher:     Random House
Pub. Date:     June 12, 2018

Whenever I give a book a five-star review, that means, for me, it is an incredible read.  I admit that when a book is on a subject I enjoy or something that I can relate to, I usually add in an extra star.  After all, this reviewer is only human.   In this book, I strongly identify with the characters’ culture.  Still, this does not take away from the vivid imagery in the superior writing.  You will feel as though you are inside the pages and everything is personally touching you.  The novel is filled with the feel of Italy, its food, its way of life and its picturesque wonders.   As well as the ugly underbelly of peasant living; the author, Elise Valmorbida, explores the moral questions on the uneven balance of power between the sexes in Italian life.

The novel derives much of its weight from its setting: War in Italy during the 1920s to the 1950s.  The main female protagonist is the epitome of an unsentimental woman doing whatever it takes to keep her family alive during hardship in unstable times.  She and her husband have lived through and survived WWI.  Now they must do it again, with four children, during WWII.  As the reader knows, at the beginning of the war, Benito Mussolini chose to ally Italy’s forces with those of Adolf Hitler.  Soon German and Italian armies were battling Allied troops on several fronts.  Italian civilians suffered on many levels. Their homes were bombed, their food sources cut off.  Then, one month after Italy surrendered to Allied forces; it declared war on Nazi Germany.   And, the Italian people were further bombed and starved and still suffering. “War is hell.” ― General William T. Sherman.

“Madonna” focuses on the female character’s role.  Women seemed the most burnt out by life because they were the most abused.  The enemy, whoever they might be at the moment, was beating and raping the females.  Their own husbands were often no better, especially in peasant life where it is the norm for men to beat their wives and children, and have affairs.  Think the movie “Zorba The Greek,” not an Italian film but so similar in the scene where the village peasants stone to death a woman who was unfaithful to her husband.   If you think this casual acceptance of violence against women can be attributed to the period, think again.  According to the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, “women experience about 4.8 million intimate partner-related physical assaults and rapes every year.”   I actually found myself comparing our Italian mother to Tina Turner and her husband Ike.  Ike once told the newspapers in 1985. “Yeah, I hit her, but I didn’t hit her more than the average guy beats his wife.”  I have read much fiction and nonfiction on violence against women, this novel explains it so well.  The reader will observe how mothers taught their daughters that they must be subservient to men.  And if they are not, they will be physically punished.  Here is another movie for you, “Divorce Italian Style.”  The film is a comedy that still screams of a patriarchal society where it is expected that husbands and fathers hit.

All in all, as a reviewer, I appreciate that the author did not portray the mother in a romantic sense.  What she did was show wartime horrors and the abuse the women endured in an epic novel.   The author’s characters are so real and so gut-wrenching that I was not surprised to learn about the possibility that this is autobiographical.  I applaud Valmorbida for such an honest description of Italy’s wonders and shames.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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