“Mrs. Everything” by Jennifer Weiner

Genre:           Literary Fiction/Women’s FictionMrs. Everything
Publisher:    Atria Book (Simon & Schuster)
Pub.  Date:   June 11, 2019

This multigenerational novel spans the 1940s to the present.  The weight of the novel is devoted to how women’s roles in society have changed and yet remained the same over the decades.   The author states in her prologue that after the 2016 election she wanted to write about a woman like her mother.   A woman, who married, had children, divorced, fell in love with another woman and married her.  This reviewer applauds Weiner for her honesty and ambitious effort.  The novel takes on many issues: ethnicity, race, bias, class, religion, sexual assault.  Most of all, the relationships between mothers, daughters, and sisters—shades of “Little Women.”  The reader will go through the civil rights movement to the #MeToo movement.  Fittingly, Weiner tries to work everything into “Mrs. Everything,” but the result often feels bloated with detail and explanation. Overkill.

The novel is narrated by two sisters, Jo and Bethie.  The reader will follow them from their childhoods until they are senior citizens.  Jo is a tomboy.  She prefers playing sports rather than with dolls.   Her choice of clothing is masculine.  Bethie is content with being pretty, loving all things girlie, and being her mother’s favorite.   The family is Jewish, and the parents’ immigration, due to persecution in Europe, plays a large role in the novel.  The religious and cultural parts of their lives did not read like overkill.  Weiner manages to ‘show’ their heritage, rather than ‘telling’ it.  Meaning it doesn’t feel jammed in.  If all 500 pages were written in this manner, the book may have become a classic as well as a (probable) bestseller.

Sometimes Weiner seems to struggle with making her characters’ arcs believable, or how the story’s developments can feel forced, at times, by the author’s desire to subvert expectations.  (Spoiler:   In the early 1970s, Beth will find drugs in college, drops out, and worst of all, for her mother, Beth gets fat.)  Since Joe marries and has children she now becomes the apple of her mother’s eye.   This is hard to swallow because the mother is cringe-worthy cruel towards Jo as she was growing up.  The mom always guessed Jo’s sexuality and couldn’t make peace with it.

Oddly, with so much packed into the story, it is still a fast read.  The novel is marketed as Literary Fiction/Women’s Fiction.  It is really more Women’s Fiction—good women’s fiction, well researched.  If you enjoy the genre you may feel this critique is too hard on the author.   Indeed, there are parts in this sweeping saga where Weiner nails women’s personal struggles spot on.  She especially shines when writing about sexual assault or how hard it can be for females to like their bodies or simply like themselves for who they are.  Her book has a very important message.   If you can get through the information overload, it is worth the read.

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

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“Secrets of Eden” by Chris Bohjalian

Genre:         Psychological FictionSecrets of Eden
Publisher:    Broadway Books
Pub. Date:   2010

Wanting a quick break from Advanced Review Copies (ARCs), I decided to read a 2010 novel by Chris Bohjailian.  He is one of my preferred authors of page-turners.  In “Midwives,” one of my favorite novels, Bohalian crafts a courtroom drama that investigates an impossible decision made by a midwife who lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.   In “The Double Bind,” he weaves together the world of “The Great Gatsby” and the lives of his current day Vermont characters.  This results in a spellbinding tale of tension.   “Eden” is a decent read but doesn’t have the literary chops shown in Bohjalian’s other suspense novels.  It lacks the powerful writing that makes the reader want to read quickly to learn the ending.  Unlike “Midwives” and “Bind,” the characters aren’t intriguing enough to make one want to jump into the book to meet them.

“Eden” is also a psychological thriller that is once again located in rural Vermont.    The author takes on the subject of domestic violence.  We meet a couple in a troubled marriage that ends in an apparent (or was it?) murder-suicide.  This happens soon after the wife is baptized in a river. The story is narrated by the four protagonists:  the town’s reverend, the prosecutor, a female author whose own parents died in a murder-suicide, and the dead couple’s teenage daughter.  The reverend is an interesting character.  The reader is not always sure what to make of him.  I found the prosecutor’s part in the story rather dull and predictable.  “I can tell you that the river Denial is indeed pretty freaking wide.”  There is none of the sophisticated fire of “Midwives.”  The female author, who happens to see angels, is simply an unneeded character.  Can’t figure out why she wasn’t edited out.  Maybe the author wanted to show different thoughts on religious paradise: The Garden of Eden.

However, the orphaned teenage daughter is very well written.  She becomes alive on the page.   It feels as if you are reading a real teen’s diary.  “What it was like to suddenly be an orphan (and I am an orphan) and feel all the time like you’re an imposition….Membership in Club Orphan has its privileges too.”  She could do anything and no one would reprimand her.  “Still, I wouldn’t recommend it.”   Hers is the only voice that allows the author to shine.  In an odd way, the daughter’s irony and wit, combined with her survival instincts, remind me of the females in Bohjailian’s “The Sandcastle Girls.”  That story is about the 1915 Armenian Genocide.  It is filled with the suspense of life and death.  I was mesmerized when I read that one.  My point is that the author’s talent pokes through even in a tale not quite as polished as I know his work can be.

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“Little Faith” by Nickolas Butler

Genre:           Psychological FictionLittle Faith
Publisher:    HarperCollins Publishers
Pub. Date:    March 5, 2019

This is a story about religious extremism and how it can destroy a family as well as a town.  But this is not the loud and angry tale one might expect from such a premise.  It’s a quietly and delicately penned.  In many ways, Butler’s “Little Faith” reads like “Plainsong,” written by the acclaimed American author Kent Haruf.   “”Faith” also has similarities to any novel written by Howard Frank Mosher, a much loved American author.  “Plainsong” is located in Denver.  Mosher’s fiction takes place in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.   “Faith” is also located in another small American town, this one in Wisconsin.

The residents are plain-spoken people, needing not much from the world, but a good crop, family, friends, and a place to worship together as a community.   The reader will meet grandparents who are in their mid-sixties—not quite old but content being in their autumn years.  They are helping to raise their five-year-old grandson, whom they adore.   He is the child of their single-mother daughter. The daughter may be the only character who is difficult to grasp.  Butler never really explains why she can be unkind and manipulative towards her parents.  She left home years, ago returning with a little boy.  The grandfather is the story’s narrator.  Some of the novel’s sweetest scenes are between himself and his grandson. “Oh he loved the boy; and that was all there was to it.”  The book is divided into seasons.  The lyrics to the song “Turn, Turn, Turn” are the essence of this novel.  “To everything, There is a season, And a time to every purpose, under heaven.”

Friction in their little family begins when their daughter falls for a new young preacher who has just come into their little town.  He creates a new fire and brimstone congregation.  He may or may not be selling snake oil.  No matter, she is smitten.  As Dusty sang “The only one who could ever reach [teach me] was the son of a preacher man.”   When he tells her that he is convinced that her son has healing powers, she never doubts him for a minute.  This will lead to a crisis that will boil over into their community.  Throughout the book, the reader will follow all the main characters on their own private religious journeys.  However, although the story is filled with theological questions, and undoubtedly the book is exploring one’s religious beliefs or lack of them, its strength lies in the author’s tender descriptions of how his characters chose to live their lives.

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“Profane Fire At The Altar Of The Lord” by Dennis W. Maley

Genre:          Historical FictionProfane Fires
Publisher:    Jublio
Pub. Date:    January 25, 2018

This tongue in cheek historical fictional takes place in Europe during the 1600s, and is a fun- and fact-filled piece of work. The protagonist is a Jewish dwarf named David Reuveni, a real historical person, who cons European Jews into believing that he’s the Messiah.  He hires an actor, Diogo Pires, another real person (who is always on the run from one country to another, usually for sleeping with the wrong woman), to aid him with his deception.  They both become rich in this scam. When the two first meet on a ship, Diogo comes close to stabbing David because he calls Diogo a Marrano.  Digio demands an apology because that is what they call Christian Jews in Portugal. Pig.”  David thinks “this is a man with a hidden past.  Perhaps he can be of value to me.”  The novel wears a coat of black humor.  It speaks of greed, manipulation, and religion.  I see these characters as a shrewd, not so nice, version of an “Abbott and Costello” act, especially when the protagonists are in the company of sultry ladies whom they are trying to impress.

There are many real historical characters thrown into the plot.  The author, Dennis W. Maley, had me google to see if Cristoforo Colombo aka Christopher Columbus was really a Marrano, meaning a Jew who is forced to convert and secretly practices Judaism.  I learned that this might be true.  Several chapters or pieces of vignettes on other real historical names are tossed around freely in this book:

  • Sir Thomas Malloy: The radical English writer who wrote and died in prison
  • French King Francis I: He was also King Consort of Scotland as a result of his willing marriage to Mary, Queen of Scots
  • King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn: Their marriage caused the first break between the Church of England and Rome
  • Martin Luther: The German Protestant reformer
  • William Tyadle: The leading figure in Protestant reform

The reader will learn that Canon law forbids Christians to charge interest on a loan, so they would hire Jews to do so for them.  It has been suggested that this was the beginning of the banking industry.  And let’s not forget the infamous “Fountain of Youth” that all seemed to be trying to locate.   It is amazing how Maley juggled all these figures together so the reader gets the full picture of the happenings that change the religious world.  He manages to personalize the facts so they aren’t dull.  Plus, he works hard to keep his story a fun read.  But still, I often felt like I was in the middle of a history book.  Because there truly is so much more historical information packed into the novel that I haven’t even mentioned.   There are too many names and affairs and marriages and deaths to keep up with.  For instance, in the “War of the Roses,” which was a series of wars for control of the throne of England, I didn’t care that the war ended when “Henry number seven bedded Elizabeth of York.”  I wish he cut some of the facts out because I felt eager to get back to the perils of the quirky narrators, David and Diogo, the two scheming delightfully unlikable protagonists.

Even though the history lesson is a little too long for my taste, this is a very funny book.  Be prepared to laugh a lot.  Maley writes, “Destruction awaits the Muslim Turks if Christendom joins with his powerful desert tribe. But why hurry? The food and beds are warm, the ladies plump and willing.”   When he requested that I review his novel, “Profane Fire at the Altar of the Lord,” the author shared with me that it “is what would be on reality TV if they had TV in the 16th century.”  This is a great comparison.  I can see our swindlers, attention seekers that they are, puffing out their chests for the cameras. There is enough fame-seeking in those two characters to fit right in with Keeping Up with the Kardashians.”

I found myself smiling a lot in this book.  David is surprised to discover that the leaders of the world may also be liars (no surprise to 2017 readers).  He is tired of all the nonsense and becoming fearful of exposure.  This prompts him to attempt to change his ways, though he does not succeed.  He cannot help himself.   David even lies to animals. “What am I doing now, he asked himself, lying to a horse?”  To further complicate truth-telling, Diogo comes to feels it is his turn to be the Messiah.  Again, making me think of the many Reality TV shows that are currently bombarding our brains, begging the viewer to wonder who is the show’s true star.  So, the scam continues. (The next sentence is a potential spoiler.)  I did not care for the ending of this novel, but that may be because I became very fond of the swindlers.

In Acknowledgements, the author states, “This book’s purpose is to entertain.  I am not a historian.”  Still, his work seems well-researchedThe references he cites are impressive.    Just do not take anything, especially the religious references, too seriously.  If you are a historian, you will devour all the facts found in this book.  If you are not, but enjoy historical fiction that is expertly written in black humor you will also enjoy the tale. Just wait until you read about David’s female encounter towards the end of the book.   I am still laughing.  Maley seemed to be having as much fun writing the book as I did reading it.

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The author reached out to me to review this book.

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