The Ten-Year Nap by Meg Wolitzer
Meg Wolitzer’s novel follows four women who find themselves on the verge of transition. Having grown-up in the age of feminism with the prevailing message, “I am Woman Hear Me Roar!” they followed the expectations laid out for them: college, career and having it all, but for various reasons they choose to step out of the full-time workforce. Now their children are no longer demanding every second of their time, and a feeling of restlessness has set in. The women are plagued by indecision and feelings of uncertainty. Who am I? Are my skills obsolete? Who would ever want to hire me? I want to be home with my kids but why I do I feel so guilty? Why am I so jealous of my husband’s success? What do I want to do?
These are just a few of the questions the women ask themselves while parenting through adversity, struggling with infertility, nurturing a marriage and balancing playground politics. The women lean on each other to find their own way and for this I commend the author. Wolitzer gives us a peek into the lives of these women and we see that no one has the answer; there is no “right way”. Perhaps it’s the timing, but I found myself lost in the story and relating to the inner struggles these women experienced. My only criticism is the title. To me, nap implies simply doing nothing or absently going through the motions and that wasn’t the sense that I picked up on from these characters. If anything, the women were actively involved in their family and work lives, but found themselves at a naturally occurring crossroads where they were forced to put themselves first before choosing their next path.
Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver
Dellarobia is struggling. She’s a young, unhappily married mother of two young children living a life of poverty in a run-down house on her in-law’s Appalachian farm. Her husband, content with the humdrum existence they’ve carved out for themselves finds odd jobs to supplement his waning farming salary. Her mother-in-law is quick to dole out disapproving comments and her father-in-law plods along with nary a thought of his own. One day Dellarobia witnesses a miracle of nature: the monarch butterflies that have descended on the family’s property are a metaphor for the epic shift that is about to happen in both her life and the environment.
Barbara Kingsolver is never one to shy away from controversy, and Flight Behaviour is no different. Kingsolver calls out the human race for our blatant disregard for the environment and failure to act on preserving our fragile ecosystems. The novel, while fiction, did cause me to look further into the migration patterns of butterflies and the disappearing bee population and the devastating effects both will have on our environment.
While this is not a quick read, I found myself savoring each page. Kingsolver is a gifted writer and crafts such realistic scenes that the imagery she creates is vivid and long lasting.
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Cathy Marie Buchanan brings the city, the works of Degas and the gruelling world of the Paris ballet to life in her historical novel, The Painted Girls. The van Goethem girls find themselves upended after their father’s death. With only a few coins in their pocket, the girls struggle to make a life for themselves. Antoinette finds work as an extra in a theatre production to supplement her wage as a laundress and soon finds herself entangled in a dangerous love affair. Younger sisters Marie and Charlotte both show promise as petite rats (young ballet dancers) and spend their hours toiling away at the studio, punishing their bodies. Marie is determined to rise above and escape her life of poverty. She begins modelling for Edgar Degas and is forever admired as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen.
Buchanan’s writing is so real, you can practically feel the grit of the Paris streets. If nothing else, you’ll come away from reading this novel with a greater appreciation for the art of ballet and the athleticism of the dancers.
The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon
Oh! This is such a perfect book-lover’s beach read: a thriller about a near-future in which a virus attacks not just our smart phones but our very ability to speak.
In this near future, we drown in words but they all lack meaning, and much of that absence of content can be blamed on our increasing dependence on our devices. Instead of phones, the ubiquitous device is a Meme, and it serves not only as a means of communication, but also as an extension of self and a substitute consciousness. When the narrator enters a restaurant at the beginning of the novel, her Meme brings up the menu, but it then overrides her drink order, replacing a tea with a hot toddy, because it knows that she needs a stiff drink. I marveled at this fictional creation!
Memes can also, crucially, give their owners the words or definitions they need if they have difficulty remembering a word or its meaning. Five cents a word. Touch of a button. This exchange is where the novel plays out: in the space between our use of language and its digital and corporate control.
At first, the struggle seems to be over the ownership of words and their definitions, but when a virus that corrupts spoken as well as digital communication begins to spread, the stakes get suddenly and critically higher.
Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn
This was so good it hurt. I loved St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. They were so beautifully crafted, but, because they dealt with child abuse and substance abuse, they were also really rather bleak. Lost for Words is a departure, a very pointed satire about the book prize industry, the kind of book prize St. Aubyn narrowly missed winning with one of the Melrose novels. The novel follows members of the jury for the Elysian Prize (none of whom actually read the books in the running) and some of the possible winners of the prize (the psychological disorders run the gamut). I kept thinking as I read the book how much fun he must have had writing it. He imitates academic discourse, precious prose and trendy grammarless dialogue with uncanny precision. Accomplished parody is not an easy thing to pull off, but he gets the tone so perfectly. And the way St. Aubyn satirizes politicians, academics and the press is sizzlingly good. For most of the book, there’s really no one to like or to root for, and that can make it feel somewhat rudderless, but the plot has such a powerful engine that it’s not a big missing piece. I devoured it and wanted more.
There is so much hype about this book because Gabaldon has just published the fifth book in the series and it’s about to come out as a Showcase mini-series. The protagonist Claire Randall travels through time from the 1940s to the 1740s, where she finds herself embroiled in rising tensions between the Scottish clans and the ruling English. Because she’s a nurse, she’s possessed of miraculous knowledge and saves many a life while risking her own. I don’t know, you guys. It was really rapey, to use a phrase whose coining I will attribute to Jenny. Can a woman not walk five paces in 18th-century Scotland without facing attempted rape? Also, the bad guy is not only a sociopath, but gay. I hate that kind of demonization of homosexuality. I did stay up until 4 am reading it, though, so it’s a definitely a page-turner. And its billing as a feminist answer to Game of Thrones may not be too far off the mark. There was a lot of good sex, too. So I’m giving this a thumbs up as a guilty pleasure, but with some reservations about its characterization of men.