REVIEW: NORMAL PEOPLE, BY SALLY ROONEY

Connell and Marianne grew up in the same small town, but the similarities end there. At school, Connell is popular and well liked, while Marianne is a loner. But when the two strike up a conversation—awkward but electrifying—something life changing begins.

A year later, they’re both studying at Trinity College in Dublin. Marianne has found her feet in a new social world while Connell hangs at the sidelines, shy and uncertain. Throughout their years at university, Marianne and Connell circle one another, straying toward other people and possibilities but always magnetically, irresistibly drawn back together. And as she veers into self-destruction and he begins to search for meaning elsewhere, each must confront how far they are willing to go to save the other.

There was something very painful about watching the way Connell and Marianne came together and pulled apart over time. The push and pull of their connection to one another was like a dance, but one that was awkward and hurtful. Normal People felt so ironic, in that the two of them seemed to go out of their way to avoid connecting with each other.

Their inability to communicate their true feelings felt like a phase in the beginning since the young often cannot say what they truly mean to one another. Their near misses could “normally” be this off in the adolescent stages, but these two kept up their blundering and stumbling shuffle for many years, well into college and beyond.

Their disparate backgrounds and dysfunctional families did not help them learn better ways to be together, but in the end, I gave a painful sigh when they stumbled upon ways to talk to one another in a halting fashion. Finally.

This book was difficult to read, not only because of the constantly shifting emotions, but the writing style was off-putting, with its absence of quotation marks that made the communication seem even more challenging to follow. A worthwhile read, once the reader gets through the “stumbling” parts. 4 stars.

***

REVIEW: THE BURNING GIRL, BY CLAIRE MESSUD

Julia and Cassie have been friends since nursery school. They have shared everything, including their desire to escape the stifling limitations of their birthplace, the quiet town of Royston, Massachusetts. But as the two girls enter adolescence, their paths diverge and Cassie sets out on a journey that will put her life in danger and shatter her oldest friendship. The Burning Girl is a complex examination of the stories we tell ourselves about youth and friendship, and straddles, expertly, childhood’s imaginary worlds and painful adult reality—crafting a true, immediate portrait of female adolescence.

Claire Messud, one of our finest novelists, is as accomplished at weaving a compelling fictional world as she is at asking the big questions: To what extent can we know ourselves and others? What are the stories we create to comprehend our lives and relationships? Brilliantly mixing fable and coming-of-age tale, The Burning Girl gets to the heart of these matters in an absolutely irresistible way.

My Thoughts: Julia (JuJu) and Cassie met in nursery school and bonded over similar interests, and a unique ability to know what the other girl was feeling.

At some point, and after Cassie has seemingly turned away from Julia, rather abruptly, the two are barely civil for a while. In fact, some of Cassie’s new friends are downright mean girls.

The Burning Girl moves back and forth in time, showing us some of their best adventures together, like exploring the abandoned asylum near the quarry. Those moments spent there would come back later in the book in a pivotal way.

Cassie is described as frail, beautiful, and with “famous” white blond hair. But her behavior over the years is “slutty,” according to the other girls, and soon Cassie is isolated from everyone except the bad girls. Cassie’s issues exacerbate after her mother invites her new boyfriend to stay with them. Dr. Anders Shute seems to offer Cassie’s mother Bev a feeling of upward mobility, in which she can feel “better than” she once felt. Meanwhile, Cassie struggles with her daddy issues and resents Dr. Shute’s controlling attitudes.

What happens when Cassie completely goes off the rails, disappearing mysteriously? After her second disappearance, Julia is drawn into a sense of connection with Cassie again, having dreams of a dark cloak covering a “burning girl.”

I like Julia’s musings near the end: “Whatever choices we think we make, whatever we think we can control, has a life and a destiny we cannot fully see. That I can sense the way the plot will go, that I could…save the life of one Cassie Burnes—it’s only an illusion I cling to.”

A book that moved slowly in the beginning, but always had a hint of darkness that might be revealed later on, the tale was a coming-of-age story with mystical edges. Still, I could only give this book 4 stars. It kept me engaged, but there was much to ponder that left me shaking my head.

***

A BITTERSWEET DRAMA — A REVIEW

Watching The Last Picture Show: The Definitive Director’s Cut (Special Edition) again after all these years felt almost like reexperiencing those times in my life.

It was released in 1971, at the beginning of a decade charged with revolutionary emotions and challenges. Depicting a time in small-town Texas (the 1950s), this movie leads us through a few months in the lives of several characters in coming-of-age moments. A frank, bittersweet drama of social and sexual mores that are shifting, it is also most notable for the talent-laden cast of characters: Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Timothy Bottoms, Cloris Leachman, and Ben Johnson, to name a few.

Filmed in black and white, the movie is set against a dreary tumbleweed-cast backdrop, with an almost ghost-town appearance. It called to mind for me where I was when it was released. I had just moved to what could almost be a twin of the dreary town of Anarene, Texas. The counterpart was a small former oil town to the west of the Central Valley city where I now live. The desolation in the film mirrored the emotions I felt when “dropped into” this town; I was young, with three small children, and cast rudderless onto what felt like a barren landscape. Uprooted from the urban life I loved (in Northern California), I could completely identify with the feelings of desolation experienced by the characters.

As I watched the film today, those same emotions swept over me, and I almost felt as though I were back there.

Directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the movie can best be described as a timeless coming-of-age tale that spotlights a season in the lives of a disenchanted group of young people.

Five stars.

UNIQUE FAMILY CONNECTIONS

Some of my explorations here include the movies I’ve seen and enjoyed.  Recently I saw The Kids Are All Right, starring Julianne Moore and Annette Bening.

I was actually surprised when the movie came to my neighborhood mall, much less my city.  Here in the Central Valley, we are often left out of the mix when it comes to quirky movies (or anything even remotely unconventional).

I had expected to enjoy it, but didn’t have my hopes up too high, as sometimes I am disappointed. So imagine my relief to find that, not only did it surpass my expectations, but I was so into it that I wasn’t bored for even a moment.  Sometimes movies that are about particular themes or topics will be predictable.  But not this one.  Even though there was the inevitable adolescent angst, followed by the search for the absent father, this one had the unique twist of a family headed by two “moms,” who had used a sperm donor.

In fact, each mom had one of the kids and they both used the same donor.  Makes the search easier.

Mark Ruffalo starred as the “sperm donor,” who incidentally was quite interested in forming a bond with the kids.

The kids invite him to their house with the moms and they all start to form a friendship of sorts.   Jules, the character played by Julianne Moore, has just started a landscape business, and  Paul (dad) conveniently hires her to landscape his yard.

Okay, I saw the next bit coming…sort of.  But I won’t describe what happens.

Suffice it to say that a lot of chaos ensues.

Throughout the movie, I most enjoyed the interactions between the family members and absolutely loved seeing the homey backdrop to the family moments. It doesn’t hurt that the other mom, Nick, played by Annette Bening, is a doctor, so the digs are very nice indeed.

I’m definitely preordering this DVD.

A Cozy Family Moment

A MAGICAL JOURNEY — A Review of “Whale Song”

From the talented author Cheryl Kaye Tardif we are given a poignant and haunting tale—a coming-of-age story of a young girl transplanted to an island culture that combined Native mysticism with the beautiful animal world of the whales.

When Sarah Richardson’s family moved from Wyoming to Vancouver Island, she was not happy. Leaving behind a life of familiarity and comfort, including her best friend, she could not imagine ever experiencing joy again. Her parents, however, immerse themselves into their new lives—her mother resumes her art and her father, his marine biology.

But soon enough, she finds herself seamlessly drawn to the island, the ocean, and eventually to a new best friend—Goldie Dixon—and a wise old woman called Nana, who instilled Native Nootka mysticism into her new identity.

Unfortunately, as she begins a new school year, she becomes the victim of racism meted out by another young girl and learns what it’s like to be bullied. In the process, however, she discovers the other girl’s secret abuse by her father, and during a school field trip, when she saves the other girl’s life, they become fast friends.

As life begins to settle into some kind of normalcy, Sarah is happy— she even has experienced her first crush on Adam, a young boy in her class.

But then life takes a tragic turn, as she learns of her mother’s terminal illness. Then in a horrible and devastating moment that dramatically alters all of their lives, something happens in that hospital room; something that Sarah cannot remember—hysterical amnesia, the doctors report. Because her father is the suspect, he is sent to prison for murder…for allegedly turning off his wife’s life support.

Through the horrible aftermath, Sarah clings to Nana’s words: “When wolf walks by her, she will remember.”

What finally emerges, years later, will set them all free.

A powerful tale of mystery, drama, coming-of-age, and Native mysticism, Whale Song: A Novel was like a magical journey…I couldn’t put it down!

JOY: IN UNEXPECTED PLACES — A Review of “Joy School”

Joy School“Young as I am, I know now that everything is about to come. Jimmy will be the place for me to learn the real happiness. He will be my Joy School. My joy. Mine.”

These words sum up this story, about a 13-year-old girl, Katie, transplanted to Missouri after her mother’s death, and subject to the mercurial moods of a stern, inaccessible father; she finds solace in the housekeeper and in her two friends—Cynthia, who is odd and whose grandmother actually interests Katie, with her loud, Italian ways and her penchant for cooking pasta in the middle of the night—and Taylor, a shoplifter, who introduces Katie to her larcenous skills and to make-out sessions at the drive-in theater.

And then there is Jimmy—a 23-year-old married man, who comes to her rescue one day when she has fallen through the ice while skating—and who pays her the kind of attention she is sorely lacking in her everyday life.

This coming-of-age tale skillfully describes a young girl who is out-of-place in her world—a world set in the fifties or sixties—and who searches for some kind of kinship with the cast of characters placed in her path.

We connect with her, in that the author paints a picture of this isolation in such a way that we can relate. We think—Oh, yes, I know what that feels like. And as the story comes to an end, we can feel the hope—just as she experiences it.

Joy School (Ballantine Reader’s Circle) is memorable, hilarious and heartbreaking.

FREE-FALLING INTO PLACE — A Review of “While I’m Falling”

resizedWhileI'mFallingLaura Moriarty’s While I’m Falling is an intensely engaging story that looks deep into family relationships, especially when the traditional stronghold of family life has shifted; a mother is displaced, both in her role as a housewife/mother and in her financial circumstances, while a daughter is adjusting to her own budgetary constraints at the same time that she’s trying to maintain a new relationship.

Told primarily from the daughter Veronica’s point of view, occasionally presenting the mother Natalie’s perspective, this compelling and dynamic exploration of a family falling apart spotlights what it is like for the daughter, who is trying to grow up while her mother is just trying to stay afloat.

Fearful that their mother is “going crazy,” Veronica and her sister Elise (who is a lawyer living in California) each try to grasp their mother’s issues without really understanding them. But Veronica finally does come to know firsthand what her mother is experiencing when Natalie shows up at her dorm one night with an odd request.

Meanwhile, Veronica has been trying to make ends meet by taking on extra jobs–a dorm assistant job mixed in with house-sitting for a student who has a luxurious condo. Strange mishaps on the job create havoc in Veronica’s already-stressed life.

When these chaotic lives seemingly spin out of control, events suddenly turn on a dime, and everything begins to fall into place.

This absorbing drama kept me reading, page after page, until the fulfilling conclusion.

A BABY BOOMER’S COMING-OF-AGE TALE

LookingBackIn 1972, an eighteen-year-old girl from New Hampshire wrote an essay for the New York Times, entitled “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life.”  Within days of the article’s publication, many letters came pouring in – requests for other articles, offers to go on television, and offers to meet with editors. One offer culminated in Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties – an expansion of the article she had written for the “Times.”

In this memoir, the young woman, Joyce Maynard, wrote about her experiences growing up in a time when the world was changing dramatically – a world shaped by political activism, war, drugs, and women’s liberation – and how such events, plus the constant media presence, dictated how a generation perceived the world.

Speaking as one person affected by these complex changes in our culture, Ms. Maynard describes coming of age in such a time as “growing old.”  Perhaps a kind of cynicism, or world-weariness from the constant barrage of images from television impacted her view of the world – and the  view shared by many of her peers.

Nevertheless, she also illustrates her growing-up years with the “normal” kinds of experiences – the same insecurities and fears – that shadow most young people. She also points out in her foreword that she does not consider herself to have been “representative” of the typical experience of youth in her time. In fact, she states that the act of writing about these experiences in a way “sets a person apart from the territory of which she speaks.”

It is impossible for me to read this book, however, and not relate to it as someone having lived through similar experiences. Not the experience of living in New Hampshire or having written a book at a young age, but the commonality of fears and insecurities that hound most young people in any time, but especially in an age (such as the sixties) when change was  dramatic and constant.

I had read this book many years ago, but in rereading it recently, I still could relate to it. Ms. Maynard’s fiction is compelling, as well, including the novel To Die For…But her memoirs (another is At Home in the World: A Memoir), are erudite studies of growing up female in the Baby Boom generation.

DEFINING MOMENTS IMPACT A LIFE

HardcoverLaborDayIIFrom the very beginning of Labor Day: A Novel, the reader is immersed in the mind, emotions and everyday life of a thirteen-year-old boy during one memorable Labor Day weekend. All told from the first-person narrator Henry.

Living in a small New Hampshire town, Henry is miserably aware of his limitations and those of his family members—from his mother, who is almost an agoraphobic, to his father whose new family with his new wife and new kids has no idea how to relate to him. Their stilted Saturday evenings out seem excruciating, and yet returning home to the mother whose need for him is almost too much…well, Henry is ripe for something extraordinary…something that will completely turn his world on end.

And then, at the Pricemart store early in that Labor Day weekend, the totally unexpected thing happens. First of all, it is very unusual for Henry and his mother to be out at all. His mother Adele avoids stores to the point that when she does go out, she usually buys enough provisions to stock up, therefore avoiding another such outing for many weeks…or months.

Therefore, it’s almost a quirk of fate, the two of them being in the store that day—it’s a last-minute clothes-buying expedition for Henry.

So when the man, bleeding and injured, approaches Henry, asking for help, it is such a fluke that of all the people this man could approach, Henry would be there for the encounter. And from that moment on, events tumble forward into such an unlikely scenario that the reader is drawn in and inevitably mesmerized by the unfolding moments.

We see the story unfold gradually, however, as the narrator takes us back and forth, filling us in on the backstory of each of the characters, helping us understand the context in which we find ourselves.

And then, almost like a slow crescendo, everything builds to the dramatic ending.

That’s all I’m going to say about the plot, lest I spoil it for the readers. Suffice it to say that the way you perceive certain things in life may never be the same again.

Afterwards, we are gifted with a few scenes of Henry’s life in adulthood, looking back on that summer weekend and how everything affected him—and not just negatively. We see how one incident of piecrust making with a stranger impacts Henry so much that he becomes a master chef as an adult. We discover how all of the events shaped his feelings about love, passion, betrayal…and how the haunting consequences of one weekend informed so much of his life in the years to come.

As I turned the last page, I wanted more…more about these characters and the events afterward; more of their experiences, living life through their eyes for just a little bit longer. They felt like friends…or possibly neighbors.

I will not forget this story.