Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #56: That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo

I adore Richard Russo, with his simple but powerful storylines, his colorful yet identifiable characters, his rollicking sense of the absurd, his wit and his penetrating insights. That Old Cape Magic does not disappoint, and if it is another story about a dysfunctional family and the lasting consequences of that dysfunction, it is also a story about the human condition, our human condition.

Griffin is a former LA screenwriter of hack movies turned creative writing professor at a small northeastern college. He has a wife he loves, a daughter he adores, and a good life. But not a contented one, for he is haunted by his parents—one alive and one whose cremated ashes have been traveling in the trunk of his car for the past year. His parents were both college English professors made bitter by their perceived failure to achieve the academic greatness they felt was their due. Their intellectual snobbery, their fierce competitiveness, their rudeness towards all things smaller than their own egos, their serial philandering, their constant moving from one job to the next, and their toxic parenting style all have a stranglehold on poor Griffin’s psyche. Griffin believes he has successfully exorcised his parents from his life, but his wife recognizes his unresolved relationship with his parents as the deep-rooted source of his discontent, and is not sure how much more she can put up with.

The novel begins and ends on Cape Cod, whose beach homes have always symbolized for Griffin’s parents the pinnacle of academic success which has eluded them. In the beginning, Griffin is attending the wedding of his daughter’s best friend, and has a moment of near lucidity about himself and his family which he is unable to sustain. When next we meet Griffin, it is a year later. He has been back in LA living a miserable existence of self-loathing, and he is separated from his wife. His mother is dead, but her voice lives on inside Griffin’s head. Griffin and his ex are both bringing “dates” to their own daughter’s wedding on the Cape, and a hilarious series of events ensue which have the power to force an emotional and psychological awakening on the part of our hapless protagonist.

The stories that make up Griffin’s life are as hysterically funny as they are heartbreakingly sad, and That Old Cape Magic is that rare book that can make you cry and laugh at the same time, while giving you a deeper appreciation of the human spirit.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #55: The Art of Mending by Elizabeth Berg

This was my first encounter with Berg, and I was deeply affected by both her writing and her choice of theme. This is the story of an apparently ordinary family with deeply-hidden secrets and rifts that have been papered over, but not without terrible cost. And whether or not there was physical or emotional abuse in your family, you will read this and be touched deeply, knowing that none of us can escape unscathed from the tragedies of those around us.

Happily-married Laura and her family are planning their regular annual family reunion at her parents’ home, when she gets a call from her younger sister Caroline asking for a private meeting with Laura and brother Steven during the course of the family visit. Laura reluctantly agrees, fearing that the perpetually depressed and socially awkward Caroline will put a damper on the gathering. Our narrator is Laura, and through her memories, we get glimpses of her parents’ marriage and of her relationship with her siblings that fill in the picture of something “not quite right.” Laura’s mother was a stunning model who lived by her looks and the magnetic effect those looks had on people, including her own family. She is emotionally cold, but her husband is besotted with her. Nonetheless, Laura feels she had a happy and normal childhood, as does brother Steven. Caroline was the “difficult” child, spending her earlier years idolizing her mother and alienating her siblings, and her later years despising her mother and fighting a downhill battle with depression and self-doubt. Making it worse is that Caroline is now in the throes of a divorce, as well.

It is not until the siblings have gathered that Caroline describes terrible scenes of both emotional and physical abuse by her mother, which Laura and Steven at first deny outright and then slowly come to recognize as truth. And then their father is killed by a sudden stroke in the course of the family reunion, forcing Laura in particular to have to grapple with all of their roles in the revealed family tragedy of which Caroline was the victim, including that of her beloved father who covered up his wife’s behavior for years. Berg uses a particularly effective technique of interspersing her chapters with musings by Laura over old family photos, in which Caroline’s isolation from the rest of her family is suddenly all too visible.

What I found especially poignant is that adult Laura, until now wrapped in a middle-aged cocoon of marital and maternal contentment, is now faced not only with Caroline’s painful revelations and the fact of her lifelong silent suffering, but also the uncomfortable truths about Laura’s own responsibility in the family drama. Laura’s discomfort, her anger, her guilt, and her yearning to return to the familiar cocoon are feelingly and authentically portrayed. The ultimate confrontation between Caroline and her mother—when it comes—is both subtle and healing, and left this reader, at least, in grateful tears.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #23 We don’t live here anymore by Andre Dubus

I will confess right off the bat that I was determined to love this book, having just finished and loved his son’s novel House of Sand and Fog and his son’s memoir Townie. And you’ll probably have already guessed that I didn’t like it at all.

Yes, it’s true that Dubus the father has a proven mastery over simple heartfelt writing that takes you into his characters’ heads, and yes it’s true that he is fascinated by the “mystery” of what makes relationships work—or not work—and brilliantly shares that fascination with his reader. But, while I haven’t read any of his other writing, I would dare to suggest that they reflect the same serious flaw that this book suffered—his characters are self-centered, self-indulgent, manipulative human beings, neither evil nor good, just selfish and downright unlikeable.

Here we have two couples, friends for years, whose marriages are deteriorating because they can’t be bothered to fix them. They are all seriously-flawed individuals, filled with petty jealousies and resentments. There is partner-swamping and rampant infidelity, and where there isn’t, it’s only because a character is either too bored or too self-absorbed to overly care. One of the couples has a child who barely figures in the novel at all!

I found many reviews of this book on the internet, each one more ecstatic than the next over Dubus’ supposed insights into women, his exquisite sensibilities, his gorgeous prose. I had to go back and re-read parts of the book to make sure I hadn’t missed something. But all I found were four individuals who measured their “maturity” by their willingness to “release” (read, abandon) their partners when the going got rough. Not surprisingly,  the author lived the same self-absorbed and narcissistic life, abandoning his children to poverty and a sense of unworthiness, while seeking ever-younger wives and girlfriends and indulging himself in the name of artistic license.

I don’t think that the author showed courage in “how willing he is to hold the fiction writer’s magnifying glass to his own soul,” as Dubus’ son generously writes in his introduction to this book. Rather, I think he was simply sharing his own depressingly infantile view of “the mystery of love” through the voices of his mostly unloveable characters. And that is depressing, indeed.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #19: Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

Kingsolver’s latest book left me craving both more and less. More of her beautifully-rendered characters, her humor-laden insights into marriage and in-laws and parenting, her often lovely descriptions of the world around us. But definitely less of her pretentiousness, her agenda-driven plotting (or should I say plodding), her rather blatant lecturing troweled on top of a simple and poignant story of human need.

Kingsolver begins her novel showing young Appalachian farmwife and mother Dellarobia Turnbow struggling uphill to the backwoods of her in-laws property for an illicit tryst with a handsome young stranger from the telephone company. She has conducted many flirtations as a fantasy-laden escape from a dull marriage and even duller existence, but this is the first time she has decided to follow through and thereby force the dissolution of her marriage. Half-way there, however, she comes upon a miraculous sight that stops her in her tracks, and which she takes as a sign to return home and become a different person: the woods appear to be aflame around a burning lake. Only later does she discover that it is a vast flock of monarch butterflies which, confused by climate changes, have settled on her land rather than make their centuries’-old annual trek to Mexico.

The town takes Dellarobia’s revelation to be divine, and some—including her embittered mother-in-law—plan to make money off it. Her father-in-law, however, has just sold logging rights to that same land, to enable him to pay off farm loans that have ballooned out of control. Dellarobia senses a change in her life, but doesn’t know what to make of it or how to make it happen. And her husband plods along, uninspired by developments around him but blindly secure in his life as husband, father, and son to his controlling mother. The media hones in on the butterflies, and one day, a handsome, sophisticated, married—and, of course, Harvard-trained–scientist shows up with a gaggle of graduate students in tow to settle on her land and begin to study the wayward migration phenomenon. Dellarobia’s newest crush ensues but before anything happens, we are informed that the stunningly gorgeous appearance of the monarchs is actually a “biological malignancy,” and the lectures on man’s inhumanity to Nature now start to come fast and furious, completely overwhelming the story.

All that said, there continue to be some lovely literary moments throughout, but I was unable to get past my irritation at the rather blatant propaganda. Another bone I have to pick is Kingsolver’s decision to inexplicably give her leading character the name of a 15th century Italian sculptor, her daughter the name of a Shakespearean heroine and her son a name which conjures up images of wealth and privilege. Her story takes place in Appalachia, for goodness sake. Even the scientist comes burdened with the name of Ovid Emerson, and his wife the name Juliet. What is Kingsolver thinking? [alert: spoilers ahead] And finally, the books’ end left me gasping in disbelief. Right after telling her precocious 6-year-old son that she and daddy are splitting and that she is going to college, the unfazed little boy heads off to school and a flood comes and washes away Dellarobia’s unsubstantial home and former life, while she watches in wonder. The End!

Huh?

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #16: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Given all the ecstatic reviews of this dark story, I wasn’t sure what to expect and now that I’ve finished it, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Except for the ending, which I felt lacked the careful orchestration of the rest of this novel, I think the author did a masterful job of building a steady tension that began as a mere tickle under my skin and ended up as a roiling nausea in my gut. For her brilliant plotting, her surprise twists and turns, her fine writing, her fully-drawn characters, I give her an A plus. But when all was said and done, I felt uncomfortably unsatisfied—Gone Girl offered me no one to cheer for, no one to sympathize with, no social disorder to blame, no heady insights into the condition of marriage; just a lot of sociopathy which left me feeling like I needed a long hot bath and a good hard scrub.

Flynn takes us through flashbacks, memories and diary entries back to the giddy golden days of newlyweds Nick and Amy—two of New York’s “beautiful people” with money to burn and the world at their feet. And then, things start to happen, their world begins to crumble around the edges, and the couple end up living in Nick’s home town of North Carthage, Missouri. Fast forward to their fifth anniversary and Amy’s apparently violent disappearance. Like the peeling of the layers on an onion, we are given glimpse after glimpse of the disintegration of their marriage under pressure of financial insecurity, false expectations, family crises, and more. So far, we can relate, right? What we don’t discover until much later is that there is a serious and scary mental disorder at work here, and when we finally realize what is driving these characters, it is terrifying.

For fear of spoiling the plot for the few who haven’t yet read Gone Girl, I will simply say that Flynn’s novel is a clever and mostly well-honed thriller which will get under your skin and stay there. The only question is, do you want it to?