Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson

30107561Fiction – print. Ecco, 2017. 336 pgs. Borrowed from a friend.

Eighteen-year-old Isabelle Poole graduates from high school with perfect grades and a baby on the way. Her job as a pig roaster at the local BBQ joint doesn’t pay enough for her to raise the baby on her own, and the father of her baby — her high school art teacher — has checked himself into a mental hospital. Yet Izzy is determined to keep her baby — so determined that she’s willing to join “The Infinite Family Project” headed by Dr. Preston Grind and funded by an eccentric Tennessean businesswoman.

The goal of the project is to prove that cooperatively raising children in a single home provides the best start in life. Izzy and the other nine couples are to raise the babies for ten years without distinguishing which child is biologically their own and, in return, the program will provide them with job training, parenting classes, and free room and board.

The bond between parent and child proves to be too strong, though, and other parents in the program begin to struggle with the need to be with their — and only their — child. And as the ten individual families begin to morph into one big family, the lines between couples and families begin to fracture in ways the Dr. Grind and his small group of doctoral students did not expect.

When a friend asked me if I wanted to borrow this book from her, she announced that the book is good, but weird. “Like really, really weird”. At the time, I figured she was referring to the premise, which sounded bizarre but intriguing enough that I left the coffee shop with the book tucked under my arm.

Having finished the book (and, later confirming with her), it is clear that she meant to say the plot structure are the “really, really weird” parts of the book. The first third follows a more traditional narrative structure with the reader being introduced to Izzy, learning of her emotional and financial dilemmas around her baby, and watching her decide whether or not to pursue a spot in Dr. Grind’s story.

Soon after she gives birth and is whisked away to the Infinite Family compound, the novel switches into bi-yearly updates as to how the project is going. Wilson drops the reader into the most important scene for that year’s drama — a mother deciding she needs to see her baby more, a couple deciding to wife swap — for two chapters, and then proceeds to do the same for the next year. After a number of years, the novel switches back to the more traditional structure with Izzy facing a decision about how she wants to move on with her son now that the project is over.

The benefit to this structure is Wilson can cover more time in a shorter number of pages. He drills right down into the heart of the problem for each year exposing the fatal flaws in the overall project and showing how Izzy matures from an indecisive eighteen-year-old to a much more confident young woman. The downside to this structure — and, ultimately, why the novel didn’t work for me — is Wilson denies readers the opportunity to get to know the other characters.

Everyone else — the other parents, the grad students, Dr. Grind — become caricatures rather than fully fleshed out individuals. The other eighteen parents were indistinguishable from the next and, if Izzy claimed one was her best friend and the other was rude, I had to take her word for it rather than seeing for myself.  I cared for Izzy because the earlier third of the novel helped me see why I should, but the middle third did not lend the same courtesy to the other parents and their children and there was little motivation to keep reading as things between Izzy and the other parents came to a head.

Frankly, Wilson’s examination of fringe parenting methods and their impact on the human psyche provided the scaffolding for a weirdly intriguing novel. Sadly, this scaffolding crumbled thanks to the underdevelopment of supporting characters and the cramming of an ambitious scope into a 336-paged book.

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The Wonder by Emma Donoghue

28449257Fiction – print. Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 291 pgs. Library copy.

Seven years after the Irish potato famine of 1845 and 1852, a Nightingale-trained English nurse by the name of Lib Wright is employed by an Irish town council to investigate the claim that an eleven-year-old resident by the name Anna O’Donnell has existed some four months without consuming any food. As deeply pious Catholics, Anna, her parents, and her cousin-turned-maid believe the young girl’s faith in God is sustaining her life, and the council is eager to prove whether or not they have a fraudster or the next saint living among them.

As a science-oriented woman with, to the O’Donnells’ and the community’s disgust, no religious inclination, Lib is determined to employ a through and structured watch to catch the young girl out in her deception. This watch is shared, however, with a nun by the name of Sister Michael, who Lib assumes will be easily swayed by claims of divine intervention like the rest of this small Irish community.

At its heart, Donoghue’s novel is a detective novel. The central focus is on Lib’s efforts the satisfy the council’s query (and her own) into whether or not this is all a rouse. If Anna is secretly eating, is she doing so on her own or are people assisting her? Who planted the idea in her head? Was it her mother or her cousin or the local priest? These questions certainly had me racing to the end.

Yet, it is the presentation of life in the Irish countryside in the 1800s and the way such a life can feel claustrophobic and oppressive to an outside that pulled me into the story. Like Lib, I am a (very) lapsed Protestant who favors science over religion and, like Lib, I spent much of the book mystified by the Catholic rituals performed daily and horrified that people could attribute the starvation of a young girl to religious piety. My reaction was Lib’s reaction; my horror was Lib’s horror.

(This shared reaction ended up leading to one more the interesting discussions my book club has engaged in. With the exception of myself, all in attendance were raised Catholic and a number attended Catholic school so they were more familiar with the seemingly bizarre behavior of Anna and her family. Of course, that’s not to say that any of them supported the idea that God was sustaining Anna’s life. More of a “well, of course, Anna would say a particular prayer thirty times a day to help her brother out of purgatory”.)

Donoghue’s writing is stunning, and the relationship between Lib and Anna evolves beautifully over the two weeks the two are together. (If that seems too short to develop a genuine fondness for a person, the two do spend up to sixteen hours a day in each other’s presence.) I awarded Donoghue’s novel five starts on GoodReads immediately upon finishing the novel and, for once, I don’t feel any inclination to downgrade that rating after expressing my thoughts here.

The Wonder was shortlisted for both the 2016 Giller Prize and the 2017 Kerry Group Novel of the Year Award.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

28683066Fiction — Kindle edition. Knopf, 2016. 320 pgs. Library copy.

Gyasi’s novel opens with the story of Effia, a young girl living a small village along the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana) with a father who adores her and a mother whose good graces Effia is excluded from. On the cusp of womanhood, Effia is desperate to marry the future chief of her village, Abeeku, and is told she will as soon as she has her period. Her mother, Baaba, convinces Effia to tell only her when her period finally begins yet, when the moment happens, Baaba refuses to inform Effia’s father, Cobbee, so the marriage to Abeeku can occur.

Baaba’s silence is twisted into a myth about Effia — the large fire that accompanied her birth is a sign of a witchcraft that has left her unable to bleed — and Cobbee must send his beloved daughter away to preserve the safety of his village from her curse. Effia is married to the British commander of the Castle, James, and learns about the existence of unknown sister.

“We believe the one who has the power. He is one who gets to write the story. So when you study history, you must always ask yourself, Whose story am I missing? Whose voice was suppressed so that this voice could come forth? Once you have figured that out, you must find that story too. From there, you begin to get a clearer, yet still imperfect, picture.”

This unknown sister, Esi, is then introduced in the following chapter, and Gyasi’s novel proceeds to jump back and forth from the descendant of one sister to the next as their lives split further apart. One descendant is raised to be the bookkeeper for the family’s business trading in slaves from present-day Ghana; one descendant is sold into slavery in America. One descendant becomes a college professor; one descendant ends up addicted to drugs.

“Forgiveness was an act done after the fact, a piece of the bad deed’s future. And if you point the people’s eye to the future, they might not see what is being done to hurt them in the present.”

Because each chapter introduces a different character, the novel takes on the form of a collection of short stories. There are some connecting themes and characters who move from one story to the next, but the focus is largely on the pinnacle moment in each character’s life. The moment where their husband leaves them or their mother dies or they become addicted to drugs or kill their child.

In another author’s hand, this structure would feel superficial; the reader only being able to see the surface of each character’s life. Yet Gyasi managed to pull me into every single story, to make me feel for each character, to leave me frustrated when she forced me to move along to another character because I just wanted to spend one more second with this character.

I would gladly read a full-length novel on any one of these characters, particularly those still living in Ghana whose experiences have not featured in other novels I’ve read. (The structure and themes of the American stories of Gyasi’s novel reminded me quite strongly of Alex Haley’s Roots.) Given how stunning this novel is, particularly for a debut, I look forward to reading whatever Gyasi decides to write next.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

18824493Fiction — Kindle edition. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. Europa Editions , 2012. 331 pgs. Purchased.

Back in December, several members of my book club met over brunch to swap books and suggest titles for the coming year. When I threw this title into the hat, I mentioned I felt as though I was the only one who hadn’t read Ferrante’s  four-part Neapolitan Novels series. A number of members chimed in saying they hadn’t yet read this title — let alone the entire series — despite seeing the book front and center at nearly every bookstore and the book landed a spot on our list of selections for the year.

This coming of age story actually begins two years before the novel’s publication data with sixty-something Elena Greco receiving a call from the son of her childhood best friend announcing that Lila — short for Raffaella — has disappeared. More than disappeared, she’s systematically removed all evidence of her existence, including family photographs. Elena is unconcerned about her friend’s disappearance; she’s expected Lila to pull a stunt like this. Yet the phone call drudges up old memories, and the focus of the novel shifts to Elena and Lila’s friendship as the two grow up in a vibrant yet poor neighborhood of Naples in the 1950s.

Their friendship is predicated on competition and rivalry. Elena, a bright student in her own right, is shocked at Lila’s ability to learn the most difficult subjects without diligently paying attention the way Elena does, and she pushes herself both to keep up with classmate and to get to know Lila better. Both girls capture the attention and concern of a teacher, who pushes each girl’s parents to allow their daughter to continue her education.

“Did she want to drag us out of ourselves, tear off the old skin and put on a new one, suitable for what she was inventing?”

Yet the combination of poverty and a prevailing culture where women are expected to become wives and mothers splits the girls up: Elena’s parents allow her to continue her education while Lila’s insist she remain at home assisting with the family’s shoe-making business. But Lila refuses to be left behind borrowing four books at a time from a local lending library with her parents’ and brother’s cards and teaching herself both Latin and Greek. This fact startles Elena and pushes her to study even harder in order to prove that she does, in fact, belong at the high school Lila was forbidden to attend. She cannot allow Lila to “win” their (unspoken) competition.

The prevailing neighborhood culture, however, eventually catches up with the two friends, and their attention turns to boys. Lila, a late bloomer, dedicates much of her time trying to create the perfect shoe in hopes of salvaging her and her brother’s future, and much of her attention to boys is actually fixated on how a desire to escape poverty begins to condemn her brother to a life of poverty and crime in the Camorra. Elena struggles with how her education and her appearance — neither of which Lila is “plagued” with — casts her as both desirable — boys pay her money to see her boobs — and undesirable to the boys of their community.

While the two friends do not directly compete for the same boy, rivalry begins to build over the pace of their physical development and and how each young woman — the novel ends around their sixteenth birthdays — must respond to a how the machismo culture of Naples leads males in their community — Camorra or not Camorra — to believe they whatever they want of girls like her and Lila.

Much of the praise I have seen for Ferrante’s series is focused on the authentic depiction of how female friendships shift and change over the years, and I would second much of this praise. I particularly appreciate how competition bonds the girls together over the ten or so years covered in the first novel, and how this competition is allowed to shift and change as the girls age.

Yes, competition over male attention comes into play at the end of the novel, but it is not the driving force for the entirety of their friendship (to date) nor is the sole source of competition in their teenage years. Elena is just as upset that Lila is learning Greek faster than her as she is that Lila has a boyfriend while Elena does not.

And yet I found the novel did not entirely live up to the hype for me. The story — or, rather my attention — petered out during the second half of the novel, and I grew frustrated though the final quarter when it became clear Ferrante did not have a conclusion in mind for the tale. The prologue set in 2010 is a, obviously, a clue that the story isn’t over, but the necessary blend of conclusion for the novel to standalone and cliffhanger for the series to continue from the point of its conclusion with the two girls facing womanhood at sixteen is missing. As such, my desire to continue on with the series lessened as I reached the final chapters of this installment.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

51conh5rp1l-_sl300_Fiction — audiobook. Read by Noah Taylor. Simon & Schuster Audio, 2012. 10 hours, 21 minutes. Library copy.

Stationed as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock off the coast of Western Australia, Tom Sherbourne and his wife Isabel live largely in isolation. Two miscarriages and one stillbirth have isolated the couple even further — both from their family on the mainland who are anxious for grandchildren and from each other.

The arrival of a battered on the shores of Janus Rock carrying a dead man and living infant is seen as a sign by the bereft Isabel, and she urges her husband to go against his training from the Commonwealth Lighthouse Service and the morals he clings to after all he’s seen in World War I. Tom buries the body; Lucy adopts the infant and names her Lucy.

Two years after her arrival, the Sherbourne family return to mainland Western Australia with plans to introduce Lucy to their families as their daughter and christian the child. There, they learn of a young woman by the name of Hannah who is still grieving over the disappearance of her husband and the baby girl they named Grace. Gossip trails Hannah wherever she goes — community members claim her husband, a German-speaker hated for his supposed role in World War I, ran off with the child for his native Austria — and the what ifs are driving her mad with grief.

Far too often, a novel will introduce a complex situation and leave the reader in a grey wasteland without an answer. Should baby Lucy be returned to her birth mother? Should Tom and Isabel be charged with kidnapping? Should war and grief be acceptable excuses for peoples’ crimes?

Thankfully, Stedman introduces this complex situation and then follows through with the fallout. It is apparent that someone will lose, but who the someone is and the reaction of the community at large to their loss moves this heart-wrenching tale far away from the unbelievable place it begins. It is a period of adjustment for Lucy, Hannah, Isabel, and Tom; it is a period of mourning for all. And Stedman handles each character’s point of view and reaction to the situation with care. With an attention that makes this a far more extraordinary debut than the writing style original suggests.

And, despite the distance both in time and space from World War I, Stedman never allows the war to stray from the reader’s mind — just as it would have been for real Australians in 1926. There are the shattered, debilitated men who are lost to their communities and the guilt of those like Tom who came back — at least, physically — in one piece. There is the anger and the resentment over lost children — brothers, sons, and husbands — in war manifesting itself in both the xenophobia directed towards Hannah and her husband and the relationship between Tom and Isabel, Tom and Lucy.

The novel does occasionally switch from past to present tense for no discernible reason, which added some complication to listening to the audiobook as read by Noah Taylor. I would often have to rewind in order to ascertain if the novel had suddenly switched back in time (it hadn’t). And there was also an issue with the sound mixing. I would jack up the volume for one part — Taylor has a tendency to mumble — and then have to scramble to turn it down when he started screaming at me in the next part. The novel was worth dealing with all the audiobook’s idiosyncrasies, but I still wish I had read the print version instead.