THE INTERIOR & EXTERIOR WORLDS OF MID-CENTURY LONDONERS — A REVIEW

Mid-Century London is the setting at the beginning of More Than You Know: A Novel. The author paints a lush backdrop for this period piece, showcasing the times as they were. Sweeping from the fifties into the early seventies, we are gifted with a peek into the lives of Londoners who are privileged and well-born; and alongside them, we see the hard working blue collar class, with some notables who pull themselves up by their own efforts.

Against this backdrop, we view the issues of the times: women struggling to find their place in the world of work, while men are forced to reexamine their own views of the roles of men and women. Front and center in this tale are Eliza Fullerton-Clark and Matt Shaw, two people from different worlds drawn together by their passion. Two people whose values are so different that one wonders how they lasted as long as they did. Their child is the glue that holds them together for a good part of their marriage, and in the end, the child will become the centerpiece in an ugly and destructive custody battle.

All the supporting characters were intriguing in their own way, from Scarlett, Matt’s sister, to Mariella, a beautiful socialite that Eliza met while working on a fashion magazine. The careers, relationships, and how these characters were swept along with the times, showing us their interior and exterior worlds, kept me glued to the pages, even as I sometimes grew impatient with their behavior and their thinking.

Vincenzi has a way of delving into the gritty lives of the characters, and as the marriage between Eliza and Matt disintegrates, she depicts how the characters have come to some realizations about the institution and what befalls it:

“Marriages do not suddenly drop dead; they expire slowly, from a thousand cutting words, a million misunderstandings, from an unwillingness to apologize to a willingness to take revenge. There is a dawning–slow at first, then gathering pace–that things are not as they were and moreover not as they should be, that responses are not what is hoped for, that disappointment is more frequent than delight, that resentment is more persistent than forgiveness, all remarked upon and brooded over and then stored angrily away. Desire dies; affection withers; trust becomes a memory.”

As I finished the story and felt that glow that comes with a satisfying ending, I knew that I had revisited a season of change in the lives of the characters that mirrored those felt by any of us who lived through those times. I could feel again what it was like to experience the passions, desires, and ambitions that burst upon us all when traditions were cast aside in favor of new ideas. Four stars.

FALLING FROM THE MOUNTAINTOP: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY — A REVIEW

It begins with the 1999 plane crash that kills three people, devastating numerous families, friends, and the country: The fallen prince, John F. Kennedy, Jr., who left behind the promise of a future now cut short, and a sister, Caroline, who at forty-one, would become the keeper of the flame. He had once spoken to his sister about the subject of death, and how it seemed a common denominator for their family:

“We aren’t exactly cursed,” (he had said of the Kennedys), “but we’re pretty damn close to it. Yes, we’ve had our share of luck. We’ve been to the mountaintop. But there have been entirely too many tragedies, mostly of our own making.”

At this lowest point in a life, the author begins American Legacy: The Story of John and Caroline Kennedy, and takes the reader back to the early moments, with how life started for this little family with a handsome congressman, a beautiful twenty-four-year-old Jacqueline Lee Bouvier, and “the wedding of the decade,” on September 12, 1953. We follow this golden couple as their life unfolds in glamour, promise, and that eventually leads to the White House, with all of the ups and downs of this very public life that would become theirs.

Based upon a voluminous archive of personal interviews, we see a telling portrait of the Kennedy legacy and of the legacy left behind for John and Caroline, because of and in spite of their personal tragedies.

Not only do we see their growing up years after the assassination and how difficult that was for them, but of the Onassis years, followed by finally settling down again in New York, where they grew to adulthood. How Jackie protected them as much as possible, but then, finally, after she was gone, how they had to stand on their own.

Caroline and John showed distinct differences. “Despite her sporadic flirtation with the media, primarily when publicizing a book or appearing on behalf of a Kennedy-related project, Caroline remained essentially a private citizen. If John Kennedy Jr. was a one-man publicity magnet, if he good-naturedly parried with the press and accepted the lunatic excesses of public adulation and even, at times, enjoyed the attention, his sister preferred a quieter (and saner) existence. If anything, the death of her brother made her quest for privacy tougher. As the sole survivor of the Camelot mystique, she became the focus of a nation consumed with the passing of the torch.”

Even though I’ve read a number of books about the Kennedys, this tome filled in some missing pieces and fully drew the portrait of a generation of Kennedys that will live on in our collective consciousness, as a nation, and as individuals who once dreamed of a world like the one portrayed in Camelot. At 520+ pages, this book brought out much more than I expected. However, I would not recommend it for those who like a more direct telling of a story, since this one weaves back and forth, and brings in numerous seemingly extraneous details; this book earned four stars.

THREE GENERATIONS OF WOMEN LINKED BY LOVE & LOSS — A REVIEW

Three generations of Swedish women whose lives are linked through a century of great love and great loss vividly people this family saga.

Told from the points of view of Hanna, her daughter Johanna, and granddaughter Anna, Hanna’s Daughters: A Novel (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) is a spellbinding tale that almost immediately grabs the reader.

In the beginning, we meet Johanna, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and visited by her daughter Anna, a writer who is divorced from her husband Rikard and is the mother of two daughters. We are privy to some of her struggles as an independent woman who feels as though her mother has slipped away before she has even begun to know her.

The author then shares Hanna’s journey with us, from the late 1800s in Sweden. At twelve she is raped by the son of the family she is in “service” to; pregnant and giving birth at thirteen, she is treated as a fallen woman. Then an older man, a miller, comes to the village and falls for her. He takes her son Ragnar as his own. Together they run the mill, create a home, and have several more children before Johanna is born. There are losses along the way, but Hanna feels grateful that she has been spared the fate of continued service to other families.

Her daughter Johanna is considered bright and “gifted with words,” but Hanna’s way with her daughter is to share very little of her own thoughts and feelings and to convey the need for self-effacement. Johanna, however, has her own ideas. She becomes a spirited activist in her day, and when she marries, she chooses someone she “feels something” for.

By the time Anna is born, times and expectations have changed. She is even granted higher education. These advances do not guarantee a happy life or a fulfilling marriage. There are issues and problems. She struggles. But through it all, she has her strength, her education, and a rich history behind her of strong women prevailing in the face of struggle.

These characters seemed very familiar to me. Of course I realized that they might, as my own mother and grandmother were Swedish, and my grandmother immigrated to America on her own when she was twenty. She carried with her the traditions of the “Old Country,” and her heavy accent followed her throughout her life. In some ways, I could see some of my grandmother’s history in these characters, but Hanna and her descendants stayed in Sweden and saw their country change before their eyes. The younger generations applauded the changes, but the older ones clung to their traditional ways.

I loved this story, so rich in history, but layered with feelings. I will remember it for a long time. The story, with its back and forth movement between the past and the present, felt appropriate and almost seemed like a collective venture between the women. Some of the themes of magic and mysticism felt very natural, as well. There was one part of the story I could especially relate to. In the beginning, Hanna sets up house with furniture she picks out, with one item being especially significant to her: a sofa she calls the “Varmland sofa,” derived from its origins. This sofa holds center stage, even during the times it is in the attic because it does not fit anywhere. She carries it with her throughout her life, and it seems to represent and symbolize permanence and identity for Hanna.

A book I would recommend to women who enjoy family sagas and historic backdrops: five stars.

A GOLDEN COUPLE, TARNISHED BY LIFE

Julia and Joe Ferraro were living the dream life in Manhattan with a gorgeous Upper West Side apartment, an Amagansett beach house, and two gorgeous kids who attended elite private schools.

They met when Julia was an edgy East Village girl who wrote music reviews for the Village Voice and threw parties in a gritty downtown loft, and when Joe was a shy, awkward drama student who followed her around like a lovesick puppy.

Years later, in the midst of this wonderful life, the two are attending a dinner and enjoying the kudos Joe is receiving as a famous star on a popular TV series, including a Golden Globe nomination. Julia’s early promise has not been realized, and she finds herself without any purpose except as a housewife and mother and an accessory in her husband’s life. The slight empty feeling has no justification, she tells herself, even as she reminds herself how lucky she is. But on that fateful night, she picks up Joe’s phone to check messages, thinking it’s her own phone, and hears the sultry, sexy voicemail message from a mystery woman.

Over the next part of the story, we suffer, along with Julia, as she slides from one emotion to the next, landing squarely in the land of ambivalence, where she creates rationalizations to explain everything away. But then, finally, she turns to obsessive, almost stalker-like behavior as she tries to make sense of what her life has become.

In Outtakes From a Marriage, Leary’s characters are so richly developed that I felt like I had been dropped right into their world, moving amongst them and feeling their pain. Especially the women characters. Joe seemed more like a mannequin to me, with the exception of some clearly defined and appealing characteristics.

One of the book’s finest moments came as Julia’s memories, from childhood, from her youth, and from the early marriage filtered through at the darkest moments, sprinkling a bit of hope onto the angst-ridden scenes.

What will Julia decide about her husband and her marriage? Is he or is he not a philandering creep, or is there something salvageable about him? Should she support him and stand by him throughout his Golden Globe red carpet moments, or should she leave him standing? These and other answers gradually come in the final pages, but in the end, the author leaves the reader speculating.

I awarded this book four stars, because although it was a more in-depth exploration of celebrity life than many similar tales, the themes were somewhat predictable.

THE UNIMAGINABLE TRUTH.

Hurricane season in New Hampshire brings about an unexpected aftermath in the year 1949. Nine months later, on July 4, 1950, two girls are born to two very different families living in this little community. The families feel a connection because of this event, although the two are very different and seemingly have nothing in common—except, of course, for the two “birthday sisters.” The girls are Ruth Plank and Dana Dickerson.

The Planks are a farming family. Edwin and Connie already have four daughters. Val and George Dickerson are capricious drifters—she is an artist and he is constantly searching for the pot of gold. They have one son, Ray, who is handsome and appealing to girls.

Annual get-togethers happen for awhile, mostly initiated by Connie Plank, who seems strangely obsessed with the “birthday sisters,” constantly commenting to Ruth about the many admirable qualities she sees in Dana.

Ruth feels oddly out of place in her family, and when her mother looks at her, she sees disappointment in her face. For years, she feels as though her interests and talents do not “fit” into her life. She sketches compulsively, creating her vision of the world. When she is older, she wins a scholarship to art school. And always, in the back of her mind, is her strange fascination for Ray Dickerson, who kissed her once at the farm stand the Planks run every year, and which the Dickersons visit occasionally.

Dana, a realist, is certainly out of sync with her dreaming parents. Her feet are solidly on the ground and she seeks a life that honors that need. Eventually she becomes a scientist. She also discovers other tendencies that lead to an alternative lifestyle.

Throughout The Good Daughters: A Novel, told alternately in the voices of Ruth and Dana, an invisible cloud hovers over the characters—an odd sense of something not quite right. While it was not difficult to figure out what that might be, the actual revelation was much more unexpected than I had imagined.

I loved how the author depicted their lives against the backdrop of the times, from the lull of the fifties and the rabble-rousing sixties, including a trip to Woodstock, to the economic difficulties of the decades that came after. We could almost experience the lives of each family, from the struggles of the farmers to the fragmentation of the drifter family.

It is a tale of lives moving along parallel paths, occasionally intersecting, with such a common theme connecting them that inevitably, the connections will stand out in stark relief and the unimaginable will become the truth that sets them free.

Five stars!

A CRAZY QUILT OF TIME, PLACE, AND EMOTION

In this family saga set against a backdrop of other-world mysticism, we are plunged into a dreamlike state as we follow our characters. Irish twins are the focal point of the story and are defined as “two children born to the same mother within the same year.”

The stage is set with the death of Anne Monaghan Shields while water-skiing—at eighty years of age. Descriptions of a “pop” sound and everything turning to black and white set the tone for what comes next. “Random thoughts and visions of people are trapped in a crazy quilt of time and place and emotion…” The author’s words best describe our introduction to the other-world of Ohr, a transitional place where one views one’s life and the lives of those left behind and comes to some kind of acceptance. It is later described as a place of “judgment,” but not in the harsh sense of the word.

Anne first meets her sister Molly, her own Irish twin, who died many years before under mysterious circumstances. Molly looks like she did when she died and now hands over a cup of tea. She is the spirit guide, apparently, but others will also step in to assist as time goes on. Many cups of tea in several different cups accent this unique journey.

When she died, Anne’s own Irish twin daughters, Jenny and Caylie, were 40 (and almost 40) and struggling with their own life issues. As her two youngest children, they seem more adrift; Anne feels a sense of having “abandoned” them—not only at the moment of her death, but earlier in their lives when she and their father Michael abruptly left their home to move to Mitten Lake, Michigan on the day of Caylie’s high school graduation.

Moments like these fill the pages, as we move from the spirit world to the lives of family members, and then move back in time to the past in the lives of each family member.

It’s like we have a birds-eye and a panoramic view of life events, with Anne leading us. When we are dropped into each family moment, past and present, we gradually come to learn the history of events, with all the long-buried secrets surfacing in little snippets.

We are treated to Anne’s own “life passing before her eyes” moments, almost as if we’re watching a movie. We come to know each character deeply and care about how they all deal with everything life presents.

Irish Twins is a fascinating and uplifting story of life, life after death, and the insights we can glean along the way.

I will never think of death in quite the same way again.

Five stars…definitely!

LIVES FOREVER ALTERED…

Four lives, connected in some way by an event that changed the world, now continue to intersect over the years afterwards.

Leslie, Billy, Sam, and Rafe—their lives are inexplicably altered.

Leslie is comfortably married to Pierce, but her loving connection to her brother Gus is a truly nurturing relationship.  Childless, she has become almost like a mother to Gus, since she is fifteen years older.

Billy, a playwright, was Gus’s live-in lover on that fateful day when the planes crashed into the Twin Towers.  What nobody knows is that she had already decided to leave Gus, so when he dies as a passenger in one of the planes, she feels like a fraud as she grieves for him.

Sam, an architect, who bought property when Leslie was selling real estate many years before, is now divorced; his first wife had died years before and his children, somewhat distant from him, are grown.  Sam has harbored feelings for Leslie for many years.

Rafe, whose wife suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, is an actor.  He is one of the stars in Billy’s newest play, called “The Lake Shore Limited”—a play about a terrorist act on a train that leaves people waiting for news of their loved ones, just as many did after 9/11.

These four all connect again as they come together to see Billy’s play, and then their lives intersect continually for weeks and months afterwards.

As the story unfolds, we get to view the interior lives of these characters, as sections are devoted to each one in turn.  We see what motivates them, what they’re worried about, and what they fear.  Their worlds are truly explored and we come to know and understand them.  Even empathize with them, despite some of their choices.

In the end, I sincerely wanted to know what would happen next with each of them, as we are left at a point in all of their lives where much is unresolved.

There’s a moment in the story where Billy, the playwright, is reflecting on the success of her play, now that it’s over, and feeling some satisfaction that, in her creation of a terrorist act on a train, she has used similar events (from 9/11 and what happened to Gus), but that, in a way, she has memorialized him as she would not have been able to do otherwise.  She sees this as her homage to him, her way of “not forgetting” Gus.

Sue Miller has done it again, with her characters, her plot, the multi-layered story that exposes the dark and light side of the human condition…and she has totally captured the attention of this reader.  The Lake Shore Limited definitely earned five stars.