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 DISASTROUS FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE — A REVIEW

In this sad, yet poignant tale, we slowly watch the happiness of this newly married couple slip away.

The beginning paragraphs offer up a clue as to the root of their problems—sexual inexperience and lack of communication. But in the pages that follow, we see how the two met, how they gradually reached the point of marriage, and that the seeds of their future discontent sprouted long before that fateful night.

I liked the author’s style of gradually unfolding the actual events of that night: from the opener, followed by the courtship in its various stages, until finally we see the disaster on Chesil Beach.

The author then gifts the reader with the “near misses” of their lives afterwards, and we cannot help but wish that somehow, the two of them would find each other again—improved by age, wisdom, and experience. But alas….there is no happy ending here.

On Chesil Beach could be a cautionary tale for those who would ignore or choose not to engage in serious communication in the beginning of a relationship. But the time period (pre-sexual revolution) is an indicator of why and how these two failed at this task.

Five stars.


A JOURNEY ACROSS A GREAT DIVIDE — A REVIEW

What happens when, after twenty-four years of marriage, the wife suddenly realizes that she has lost pieces of herself along the way?

It’s not an unusual story, given the nature of marriage. But Elizabeth Shore did have dreams, once upon a time. And it’s not as if she can actually blame her husband Jack, since she hasn’t spoken up or protested enough when they ended up moving repeatedly to follow his dreams.

But something inside Elizabeth clicks when Jack takes a job in NY, and their beautiful home, to which Elizabeth feels especially connected, is in Oregon.

Their girls are grown and in college, so Elizabeth’s decision not to follow Jack seemingly affects only the two of them. But she is wrong about that.

I felt something like a little “click” of my own as I read Distant Shores: A Novel, with the beautifully constructed women characters in Elizabeth’s “passionless” women’s group. A group about rediscovering the passion that ignited them all once upon a time. I also liked how Elizabeth finally connected with her once-disdained stepmother Anita after her father’s death. And the secrets about her own mother that helped turn the tide in her quest.

One woman’s journey of self-discovery kept me turning those pages, and even though the plot felt a bit predictable, I did enjoy the search and the chance to reconnect with one’s bliss.

Four stars.

A COURAGEOUS INTERIOR JOURNEY — A REVIEW

Meredith Baxter’s memoir, Untied: A Memoir of Family, Fame, and Floundering, burrows into her childhood moments and what it was like growing up the daughter of an actress; then we discover her feelings of loss and abandonment when she believed herself to be simply an afterthought in the lives of her parents. The story gives the reader a peek into her life before celebrity; and then takes us on the journey to that particular destination.

What we’ve known about this actor is the life we’ve only imagined, based on her performances and what we might have read in celebrity magazines. From her star-studded celebrity and her partnership with costar David Birney (from Bridget Loves Bernie), we see an entirely different kind of life behind the scenes. Behind the televised moments, we learn about Meredith’s feeling of having “no voice” in the marriage; we learn about the emotional and sometimes physical abuse; and about the overwhelming feeling of always being “wrong.” From there, we discover the role alcohol played in her life; the symptom of her “thinking” problems that would continue for years afterwards, until finally she reached a point in recovery where she could examine how her thinking, her choices, and her belief systems had controlled her life. An interesting point she makes, which she gleaned from a sponsor, is that, in looking at a particularly “painful” relationship or individual, she must consider that the person is “not the wound, but is the sword in the wound.”

Rediscovering who she was and forming a new and separate identity without a man in her life led to another unexpected pathway—her choice to accept and embrace her lesbian lifestyle and the compatible partner she now has. This decision came after much thought and examination. Previous relationships had been based on the familiar, playing out the more damaging aspects of familial relationships. In the latter portion of the book, she states: “Then I had to think about most of the previous relationships I’d settled for, where I’d been so lonely, lying to myself, pretending I wasn’t hurt, trying not to feel, not being able to share, not showing up….”

Like many memoirs I’ve enjoyed, this one gave me a lot to think about. Why we choose our paths in life and what emotional triggers govern us. How our own childhood experiences color everything we do, but also how we sometimes go in opposite directions, thinking we are taking control of our lives—and yet how we’re still reacting to those previous experiences. Developing insight into our behavior sometimes takes a lifetime, and the mistakes we make can also be the lessons we learn for the future…if we are courageous enough.

Five stars…definitely!

DARK, TIGHTLY THEMED, & RICH IN CHARACTERIZATIONS — A REVIEW

In Laura Lippman’s short story collection, we experience a variety of voices: first person narratives; stories from the perspective of women ranging from teens to aged; two from men who have been less than faithful to their wives (spousal betrayal seems to be a recurring theme); and a couple from the perspective of black men.

Another recurring theme lies in the numerous stories set in Baltimore or neighboring cities, like Washington, D.C. There are a few Tess Monaghan stories, and one of my favorites was the one entitled “The Accidental Detective,” in which Tess is undergoing an interview about her life. I discovered enough about Tess in this one to convince me that I really needed to read the whole series about her.

Most of the stories share a dark theme, with murder being the order of the day.

In the title story, “Hardly Knew Her,” we meet a young girl who figures out an unusual way to stop her father from gambling away all of her possessions.

In the last story, which is almost a novella entitled “Scratch a Woman,” we meet again a character from an earlier story: a high-level prostitute/madam, in which we thoroughly delve into this character’s backstory, and even meet her own sister, who also has a dark side.

Short story collections can sometimes be tedious, or many of the stories don’t hold up to the high level of one or two of them. But with Hardly Knew Her: Stories, I found that the characterizations were as rich as those in a novel, and the plots kept me turning pages, wondering what I would discover next. Therefore, five stars for this one.

IS MARRIAGE STILL A VIABLE OPTION? — A REVIEW

Marriage, and whether or not to marry, is the topic of Anne Roiphe’s memoir. In it, she explores the traditional marriages in history; the sexual revolution and its impact on marriage; the additional issues that children bring to the marriage; and how divorce and remarriage impact the individuals, the family, and the future.

In Married: A Fine Predicament, she explores each of these topics by describing examples from history, from books, and from her own experiences.

Talking about marriage, by necessity, also involves analyzing the different kinds of marriages and the expectations in each. For example, some marriages allow for infidelities, while others cling to monogamy. The author describes how the need for monogamy might seem contrary to some of her own experiences, like being a “revolutionary, a lover of freedom, a rebel against conventional bonds.” Yet in marrying her second (and last) husband, she realized, after getting to know him and his values (he felt disloyal if he dated more than one woman at a time), that she could not violate such a man’s trust.

After a thorough and detailed description of the various contemporary kinds of couples, from the living together to the married, and all the formats in between, she states:

“Marriage is not the only way to be respectable these days and social power is possessed by those who mock the rules (rock and rap stars, movie stars, wealthy men) and social disapproval carries no real sting in urban America and less than it used to across the land.” She goes on to say that “marriage can answer one human problem better than any other solution yet divined. It can assuage our loneliness.”

Obviously, this author is in favor of marriage, despite is many flaws and failings. She is not anti-divorce, as she writes that sometimes the ending of a marriage is the best solution for all.

Personally, I have experienced marriage and various forms of companionship in between, and while I have, finally, at this time, decided that my individual journey works best for me, I can see the appeal that others find in the institution. Sometimes the children of divorce suffer permanent trauma, but at the same time, the children in unhappy marriages may sustain life-long damage as well.

My conclusions are that each of us has to decide what works best in our own lives, and hopefully have the courage of our convictions.

This thoughtful, provocative, and meaningful exploration earned five stars from me.