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.

A SURREAL JOURNEY — A REVIEW

Suki Piper has returned to London after a decade long escape to New Zealand. Specifically, she has come back to the old neighborhood in Notting Hill, where her family lived for the first eight years of her life. A place full of memories, some that feel like bits and pieces of surreal images, while others hint at mysterious goings-on that she has struggled for years to piece together and understand.

Soon Suki is once again enmeshed with members of the Wright family: Peggy, the matriarch; Pippa, the daughter who was once a teen babysitter for Suki; and Harold, the strange and sometimes condescending son. These former neighbors lived in an upstairs flat above the basement where the Pipers lived, and now Peggy lives there alone.

As Suki floats from place to place, sleeping on friends’ couches, she begins to reach out to Pippa, feeling totally disconnected from everyone else, and realizing that friendships she left behind are not so easily resumed. Her old friends seem distant and disinterested.

So when Pippa asks Suki to stay with Peggy, who is in failing health, while her family goes to Greece for vacation, Suki agrees. Where else will she go?

What follows are a series of flashbacks, taking the reader from the present to the past and back again. Suki’s first person narrative carries the reader into her early childhood memories, the time in New Zealand, and the strange memories that haunt her about a long-ago time before her father’s abandonment of the family.

How does an old air-raid shelter in the backyard figure into Suki’s half-formed and surreal memories? Who is “the girl below” and what is her significance in Suki’s life? What must Suki do to finally sort out the strange moments and what they mean to her life in the present, and how do they connect to questionable things in the past?

I found myself totally absorbed in Suki’s dilemmas, especially her feelings of isolation and disconnect from people and places. Her father’s abandonment, followed a few years later by her mother’s death, left her feeling unmoored. Rudderless, as if her life had no meaning and she had no significant connections to anyone. Her quest for a feeling of belonging through a series of love affairs and the endless pursuit of the euphoric high of drugs felt appropriate for someone who has not dealt with her issues of abandonment and loss. I was pleased at how Suki was eventually able to finally put the past into its place and form a starting point for a new future. The Girl Below: A Novel was a surreal journey into one somewhat narcissistic woman’s psyche, and at times, was a bit self-pitying. Four stars.

IT TAKES A VILLAGE: ONE YOUNG MAN’S JOURNEY TO MANHOOD — A REVIEW

 

 

 

If it takes a village to raise a child, for J. R. Moehringer, it took Manhasset, in Long Island, NY; and more specifically, it took a neighborhood bar named Dickens (later called Publicans).

In the 1970s and 80s, the young boy was first captivated by The Voice, the unseen presence of his absent father. When the radio presence mysteriously disappeared, he inadvertently stumbled upon a host of other mentors in the bar on the corner in his village.

Two themes guided the young boy: growing up to take care of his mother, and getting into Yale. Along the way, there were the men at the bar, who took him under their wing: Uncle Charlie; Steve, the bar owner with the Cheshire smile; Joey D; Cager; Bob the Cop….and assorted members of this very influential club of mentors who stood in for the missing father.

We struggle along with J. R. as he achieves his goal of growing to manhood. Connecting with J. R. is inevitable, as the coming-of-age trials and tribulations are sprinkled with the stories of his mentors and his own voice laden with humor and honesty. From this “school” of tender influences, it is no surprise that J. R. became a writer. His efforts to become a reporter (from copyboy) at the New York Times had me rooting for him, even as his path inevitably took him elsewhere to greater heights.

Other influences, like the quirky managers of a bookstore in Arizona, added “voices” to the others when they encouraged him and lent him books that would ever after enrich his life.

In the final pages of The Tender Bar, J. R. is watching a video of his mother holding him as a baby, and these thoughts sum up his story for me:

“…I’d always believed that being a man meant standing your ground, but this was something my mother had done better than anyone. And yet she’d also known when it was time to go. She’d left my father, left Grandpa’s, left New York, and I was always the beneficiary of her restless courage. I’d been so focused on getting in, I’d failed to appreciate my mother’s genius for getting out….I’d always been dimly aware, but at that moment, with my first glimpse of the warrior behind my mother’s blank face, I grasped the idea fully and put it into words for the first time. All this searching and longing for the secret of being a good man, and all I needed to do was follow the example of one very good woman.

Brilliantly chronicled, one young man’s journey through life’s adversity toward his ultimate path captivated this reader to the very end, and left me wanting more of the story. Five stars.


ALTERNATING INTERIOR WORLDS — A REVIEW

Emmy Rane is a young woman grief-stricken by the loss of her baby girl. It happened one day when she went inside and left the baby outdoors…and from that moment on, her life seemingly unravels. Her desperate search leads to her hospitalization in what can best be described as a very restricted environment.

Meanwhile, in another time and place, a young fourteen-year-old girl named Sophie Marks is living her own restricted life, hidden away indoors and homeschooled by a very secretive mother who pulls up stakes and moves frequently. Sophie’s first attempts to reach out and forge an individual life for herself comes when she meets the boy next door and his “aunts” who read regularly and joyfully. A glimpse of this life opens up the world for Sophie and gives her the courage to begin uncovering her mother’s secrets.

It isn’t much of a mystery that these two lives will converge at some point, but the tale told in alternating perspectives is a captivating character-driven portrait of each young woman’s journey and how freedom and joy are finally achieved.

Emmy and Sophie were wonderfully detailed characters whose individual voices showed the emotional landscape they lived. I enjoyed You Are My Only so much that I wanted it to go on longer.

The denouement was completely satisfying and brilliantly portrayed, even as I wondered if it would happen at all. Therefore, I’m giving this one five stars.

A YOUNG WOMAN’S QUEST TO BELONG….

While Linda is growing up in the small town of Boiling Springs, North Carolina, back in the 70s and 80s, she knows that she is different from everyone else, even the members of her own family. She “tastes” words. When she hears or speaks them, an association with a flavor bombards her, which she calls “incomings.”

Her best friend Kelly writes letters to her, first to launch their friendship, and then to connect with her afterwards, even though they live in the same neighborhood. The letter connection is one small bit of normalcy for Linda.

In this story, we follow the “confessions” of Linda, including her descriptions of daily life in this small town, her first crush on a boy named Wade, and a horrendous experience that will overshadow these years. When she finally “escapes” the town and goes to Yale, we continue in this vein, moving between the past and the present, until this section is complete.

Another very important and positive presence in Linda’s life is her great-uncle “Baby Harper.” Gradually she comes to rely on his presence and his adoration.

In the second section, revelations begin. We finally learn some of the reasons for Linda’s unique experiences, as well as why she has no memory of her first seven years.

While Bitter in the Mouth: A Novel was a very compelling story, there were parts of this novel that were slow; the first section even seemed confusing at times, with the tendency to leap around between past and present. The flow was not as smooth as I would have liked.

In the second section, however, the novel “redeemed itself” for me and finished with a blaze of triumphant renderings, which is why I gave this tale four stars.