REVIEW: MRS. EVERYTHING, BY JENNIFER WEINER

 

Do we change or does the world change us?

Jo and Bethie Kaufman were born into a world full of promise.

Growing up in 1950s Detroit, they live in a perfect “Dick and Jane” house, where their roles in the family are clearly defined. Jo is the tomboy, the bookish rebel with a passion to make the world more fair; Bethie is the pretty, feminine good girl, a would-be star who enjoys the power her beauty confers and dreams of a traditional life.

But the truth ends up looking different from what the girls imagined. Jo and Bethie survive traumas and tragedies. As their lives unfold against the background of free love and Vietnam, Woodstock and women’s lib, Bethie becomes an adventure-loving wild child who dives headlong into the counterculture and is up for anything (except settling down). Meanwhile, Jo becomes a proper young mother in Connecticut, a witness to the changing world instead of a participant. Neither woman inhabits the world she dreams of, nor has a life that feels authentic or brings her joy. Is it too late for the women to finally stake a claim on happily ever after?

 

My Thoughts: Mrs. Everything launches the reader into the present moments in the life of Jo, and then swings back to growing-up years in Detroit, in the 1950s. We alternate between Jo and Bethie’s stories, from their sisterhood, their relationship with their mother Sarah, and their college years. The era resonated with me, since I also came of age during those times. The story is layered with the civil rights movements, the Vietnam War, the feminist and consciousness-raising groups…and how time and personal experiences changed each of the women as they moved beyond their early years.

I found myself relating to each of them in various ways, and I looked forward to each time I picked up the book to continue the family saga. A memorable story that earned five stars for me.

***My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: JUNE, BY MIRANDA BEVERLY-WHITTEMORE

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When Cassie Danvers’ grandmother June died, she left her the huge old house, Two Oaks, in St. Jude, Ohio, built in 1895.

Cassie left New York and the loft she’d shared with her ex-boyfriend, but once she took possession of the house, she seemed to be sleeping her life away. There was much that needed to be done to the home and the surrounding gardens, but she couldn’t seem to manage it all. Nor could she find the energy to pursue her photography.

At night, Cassie dreamed of colorful people and events occurring in the house, but her days were troubled by the encroaching weeds in the garden and the mail piling up in the foyer.

Until one day when there was a knock on the door, and a young man named Nick Emmons had come to share some news. Cassie had inherited $37 million from Jack Montgomery, a Hollywood star who had just died. Apparently in the summer of 1955, he and an entourage of actors had taken up residence in St. Jude to film a movie called Erie Canal. And during that time, June and Jack might have had a romantic liaison. Cassie’s father Adelbert could have been Jack’s son.

But…in order to inherit, Cassie has to fulfill a request made by one of Jack’s daughters, Tate Montgomery, also a Hollywood celebrity, and a suspicious one at that. They must take a DNA test. Soon Tate and her assistant, along with Nick, are living with Cassie while she decides how it is going to play out. She wants more information before agreeing, so they start going through letters and interviewing townspeople who might have known something.

How might June and Jack have connected? What was the significance of the friendship between June and her next-door neighbor Lindie in 1950s Ohio? How would several betrayals and secrets thwart the lives of the characters back then? And what tragic event would change the trajectory of all their lives? In the present, does Cassie finally find answers and a kind of peace?

June was a richly layered family saga that swept back and forth through time, showing us the characters who populated the town and Two Oaks back in 1955…and then fast forwarded to the present. As the story finally unfolded, and as more and more secrets were revealed, I could not stop wondering what would happen next. The story had many beautiful as well as some sad moments, but in the end, a rich tapestry of characters, from the present and from the past, encircled Cassie and wrapped themselves around her and kept her company in her beautiful old mansion. 5 stars.

REVIEW: THE LAKE HOUSE, BY KATE MORTON

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In beautiful Cornwall, Eleanor and Anthony Edevane live an idyllic life in a home they call Loenneth (Lake House). They met, fell in love, had one daughter, Deborah, and then Anthony went off to war. Eleanor got pregnant with Alice when he came home on leave. And after his return, two more children were born: Clementine and Theo.

All seemed lovely, and then came the Midsummer’s Eve party…a gorgeous event that seemed to signify all that was good. Until it wasn’t. That night, little Theo went missing.

The case went cold with no results. Seventy years later, Alice, in her eighties, is a best-selling mystery writer and living alone. She has held secrets close to her heart. But then she discovers that Deborah also has some secrets. Everything changes then.

Meanwhile, a young detective, Sadie Sparrow, is on leave from the police force after bad publicity from one of her cases, visiting her grandfather Bertie in Cornwall…and she stumbles upon the crumbling estate. Of course she has to investigate, and what she finds will change everything for her.

The Lake House is one of those rambling tales that moves back and forth, slowly filling in the blanks and giving us the intriguing details of the characters’ lives. The characters were each fascinating, and even those who seemed unlikeable at first glance became sympathetic, the more we know. As each character was introduced, from Constance to her daughter Eleanor and son-in-law Anthony, and then to Ben Munro, the gardener at Loenneth, we start to put the pieces together that form a cohesive story rich in details.

The house itself is like a character, with its own stories to tell. From the lush rooms to the secret tunnel, with the verdant gardens spreading around it, one can imagine only happiness within its walls. But sadness comes…and the house falls into disrepair. It would take decades before happiness returns. A lovely story that was impossible to put down, this one earned five stars!

*** My e-ARC came from the publisher via NetGalley.

REVIEW: WE ARE NOT OURSELVES, BY MATTHEW THOMAS

91hu3hzm1PLThis epic saga of an Irish Catholic family commences in Queens in 1941, with Eileen Tumulty, the MC, whose story begins when she is about nine years of age. Through her eyes, we see the effect her father has on her, with his stories, his drinking, and his larger-than-life essence.

Her remote mother, also a heavy drinker, stops drinking at one point, but life does not seem better for her.

Even at this early age, we see Eileen’s yearning for a rich tapestry of love, family, and beautiful settings. She has her eye on bigger and better things.

So when she meets Ed Leary in her college years, when she is studying nursing, there is a pull. Something about him that feels like home.

But as they begin their journey, and even after their son is born, we see the chasms growing between them, as what they each want seems to differ more and more with time.

Ed’s quirks seem more and more irritating to Eileen, as she realizes, finally, how much they have grown apart. And perhaps they never wanted the same things and she only saw what she wanted to see. Eileen’s longing for what she envisions for them—the house, the neighborhood, and the life—drives her to take actions.

But will the changes they make contribute to other, more drastic upheavals in their lives? What lies beneath Ed’s behavior, and what will Eileen have to do to bring about the serenity she craves?

The tragedies, sadness, and poignant moments that linger over the rest of We Are Not Ourselves: A Novel kept me going, wondering and even hoping that there would be some miraculous resolution to the changes in their lives. What was great to see was Eileen’s strength, in the face of life’s unexpected reversals. Ed’s traits that seemed annoying earlier in the story are now seen for what they were, a harbinger of what was to come.

Connell, the son, was difficult to pin down, for me. In his youth, he seemed on the brink of choices that could derail his life, but then, almost magically, he seemed to turn things around. What I did not like about him was his inability to see things from his parents’ perspective, and his obliviousness to any needs but his own. But time itself corrects this, and in the end, we see a new and improved version of him, ready to confront his legacy and carve out his own.

A compelling story that touches on issues with which families struggle, even without the tragedies. How marriages are often entered into without thought to how the individuals will manage when the early love no longer sustains them. And then we see that the commitment and the early bonds step in to spotlight the deeper and lasting foundation. Beautiful prose that created wonderful images of a family, a life, and the legacies left behind. 5.0 stars.

REVIEW: WHO ASKED YOU?, BY TERRY MCMILLAN

81yhWWgYv9L._SL1500_Three sisters with very different lives form the core of Who Asked You? Venetia, Arlene, and Betty Jean are each pursuing their own lives, but somehow manage to stay connected with one another. Until some issues divide them.

Narrated alternately between the sisters and a few other characters, we learn what it feels like to be struggling with racial issues, poverty, and the difficulties of raising children in LA in the Twenty-First Century.

Betty Jean has seen one child go to prison, another one lose herself to drugs, and another one who sets himself apart from the family, as if he is superior. When BJ ends up raising her two grandsons, her sisters and adult children have a thing or two to say about it.

Arlene has the most to say. Critical and judgmental, her behavior causes a rift between her and BJ. But her own son has some unexpected issues of his own.

Venetia is not as openly critical of BJ, but she still seems to feel superior. Until something happens in her own life to bring her down to earth.

These characters were so real and sometimes even funny. I enjoyed the dialogue and how the author painted a picture of their lives that I could relate to, even though my own life is different. It takes a unique talent to make the characters relatable to those who have not experienced the same things. A major theme was single mothers of all races and walks of life doing the best they can to achieve their dreams. And in the end, finding out how to fashion their own futures, even when most of their lives are behind them. Four stars.

A JOURNEY THROUGH TRAGEDY…AND BEYOND — A REVIEW

DayAfterYesterday_coverAlong a stretch of Hwy. 101 in California, a straggling collection of people linger in a diner, while the rains pound ruthlessly and the few customers are reluctant to breach the torrents of the outside world. A rain-drenched and soaked man enters, looking battered and beaten by much more than the rains….

Thus begins our story, and as the prologue reveals, life has changed dramatically for this man; we soon learn that his name is Daniel Whitman, and that horrific things have happened to him.

Flash back five months, and we see his life before. And what tragedy led Daniel to this place. We know before the story begins that his family is taken away from him: a wife and a son. What we learn now, slowly, is what his journey will look like now. And how he, inexplicably, or so it seemed to those he left behind, walked out of his life.

The Day After Yesterday is the tale of that journey, but it reveals much more: after the events of Daniel’s life following his tragedy, people and events reshape his life view and even his choices. And eventually he does go home, but everything is different.

The story alternates between Daniel’s journey and what happens to those he seemingly abandoned.

Then later, the story moves ahead and shows us what this newly reshaped life looks like. We meet new characters, we see miraculous events unfold…and in the end, we are left filled with a wide range of emotions.

At least that’s what I felt for the first 300 or so pages. But then the pace quickened and moved ahead years and suddenly it wasn’t just about Daniel anymore, but a metaphorical discovery of life and how we are pummeled by it at times…and how we can choose to let it batter us. Or we can accept it and move on.

A very philosophical story that had moments of sheer joy mixed with the darkest angst. The story took a lot out of me; and in the end, I knew I would think of it for a long while. My only issue with it was the pace and the pages and pages that felt unnecessary. However, they did skewer the point about life and how it gives us a beating sometimes. For me, however, this one earned four stars.

LOVE, MURDER, & FAMILY DRAMA: A REVIEW

3320A murder, a wealthy family with rivalries, a spoiled son and heir, and a beautiful setting in Atlanta, Georgia: all these elements draw the reader in immediately.

Smash Cut: A Novel is full of characters I could love and hate, and as the reader follows each one, more is revealed.

It didn’t take long to learn who the bad guys were, as the story was told through the perspectives of the various characters. The fun was in watching the other characters figure out how to gather the evidence to prove the case, as well as watch events unfold.

When the police conclude that Julie, the alleged lover of Paul Wheeler, is the killer, she and attorney Derek Mitchell, who has fallen for her in a major way, have to scramble and stay ahead of the police who are determined to arrest her based on circumstantial evidence.

And then, even though we knew who was killing and misdirecting everyone, there were some surprises that came to light in the final pages, including the reveal of secret relationships.

The most intriguing twists involved the plot lines of various movies, including Hitchcock’s thrillers.

A page turner that had me from the first page, I’m giving this one four stars. There were a few confusing elements that distracted me at times. But overall, I’d recommend this book to anyone who loves the mix of family drama, love, and murder mysteries.

AN INTROSPECTIVE JOURNEY — A REVIEW

3325After more than thirty years of marriage, Jack and Joy Griffin appear to be slowly falling apart. Perhaps their differences and the families from which they sprang have finally eroded the ties that bind them.

After their daughter’s friend’s wedding, their lives pull apart in a kind of floundering meander.

In a back and forth narrative, we slowly see the family moments the two have shared, from their beginning, as well as the childhood memories that Jack, the narrator of That Old Cape Magic, (known to most as Griffin), brings to the table; and then we begin to understand the disappointments, the crushed dreams, and the unresolved issues that have piled up. Crushed by a seemingly gigantic mountain, we have to wonder if there is anything left for the two of them? If so, what will finally need to happen before they can recreate their union?

Marriage and its strains; inner voices, and sometimes voices from beyond; dealing with loss and death, as well as children growing up—these are all the themes that resonate for me in this story. Will there be a moment at their daughter’s wedding a year later that will show them a sign? What is the meaning of Jack’s inability to dispose of his father’s ashes, still carrying the urn around a year later? And why does his mother, who literally pestered him via cell phone, now seemingly speak to him from beyond after she, too, has died? How do the poignant memories of Cape Cod vacations seem to signify happiness in the face of ordinary life?

The story seemed full of metaphors and symbols that shine a light on the larger questions, and even some of the answers. The richly developed characters reminded me of people I have known, especially the annoying ones. I could definitely relate to how families pull and tug at the bonds of their married children, and how these warring factions could seem like the final straws that broke them. A five star read for me.

AN APPALACHIAN JOURNEY — A REVIEW

3302Vashti Lee Daniels was born in the late 1800s into a close knit family comprised of several generations, including a great-grandmother who had a strong influence on young Vashti. That influence helped define the young woman, who was fifteen at the beginning of the story, and who had renamed herself “Bessie” quite early on in her life. I could definitely relate to renaming oneself, as I had done the same.

As the eldest child in the family, much of the housekeeping and child minding fell to her. But her close bond with her Papa, the town constable, who seemingly admired the gumption that set her apart from the others, helped nurture the side of her that would flourish as the years passed.

Whistling Woman (Appalachian Journey) is a nonfiction story based on the great-aunt of the authors, and the setting of Hot Springs, North Carolina, in the Appalachian Mountains, was researched thoroughly by them. Additionally, both heard many of the tales about Great Aunt Bessie from their father, whose storytelling abilities were certainly passed down to his daughters.

I was enchanted by the idea of a “whistling woman,” and early in the tale, the reader discovers the meaning of the term and will find it quite apt in describing the independent-thinking Bessie. Narrated in Bessie’s first person voice, the reader soon connects completely with her thoughts, feelings, wishes and dreams.

What astounding event early in the story sets the tone and spotlights the personalities of the characters? How does the event seem to herald sad happenings that will unfold throughout that year? And what unexpected occurrence will drive a wedge between Bessie and her father?

I loved the language that seemingly transported me to that time and place. I recognized certain phrases and sayings that my own paternal grandparents used quite frequently, and, as a result, felt even more connected to the characters. I wanted to know a lot more of Bessie’s story, so I’m hoping for a sequel. Five stars.

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.