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 GRITTY, REVELATORY EXPLORATION — A REVIEW

The relationship between a mother and a daughter can be conflicted and tenuous at best. Sometimes the ties that bind are slippery slopes that, upon closer scrutiny, reveal how much the mother’s disappointments are reflected back to her when she gazes at her daughter.

When the author of Unraveling Anne begins her story, she jolts the reader with the fact of her mother’s tragic end immediately. She describes how others react to the word. She says:

“My mother was murdered.

“It’s a shocking word, murdered. I don’t like to use it. But it is the truth. Murder is the only word that honestly describes her death. So sometimes, when someone asks what happened to my mother, instead of holding onto this word, toying with the small pain of it as if it were a loose tooth, I go ahead and spit it out. No matter how many times I do, no matter how many people I tell, the raw strangeness of the fact of my mother’s death never changes….”

Thus begins the chronicling of a life, by first reenacting her death. Years before, when the author first learned of the tragedy, she was living on the opposite coast; her journey to deconstruct her mother’s life and death begins twenty years later with a visit to LA and an examination of the murder book.

Saville’s descriptions of growing up in LA in the sixties and seventies and the ongoing party that was her mother’s life are interspersed with tales of her mother’s beauty, her art, and how the daughter felt proud of her in those moments. But as the party guests morph from artists, musicians, and celebrities to street people, and as Anne’s drinking consumes her life, there now remains an eerie and gritty detritus that shows little resemblance to what once was. The beautiful model, designer, and golden girl has toppled into disarray.

The moments of pride fade away, and the author recalls “taking care of herself,” but she adds that this necessity helped her develop self-reliance. There was also a supportive presence of a grandmother nearby, along with the libraries where she found comfort after school, and even teachers who built up her self-esteem.

So the story continues, as the author resurrects her childhood and those memories, and then goes deeper into an examination of her mother’s life. She is startled to discover at some point that the grandparents who were the stopgap caretakers were also the two who first helped “create” the fears, insecurities, and demons that taunted her mother. And the generation before them had its own role in the damage inflicted. In understanding those who came before, the author begins to understand and accept who she is, in spite of, and because of, her mother.

In the haunting cover photo, in which the photographer is carrying out the mother’s wish to create “income-producing models or actors,” we see the tattered theater seats set up by the photographer who displayed, along with the author (as a child), the “detritus of my mother’s modeling days—dresses with beads falling off, bright boas that left feathers floating in the air, floppy hats with bent flowers on the brims—”

A gritty, revelatory exploration that was occasionally difficult to follow, as it jumped around chronologically, I still could not put it down. I am awarding this memorable memoir four stars.

A REAL WOMAN’S PLIGHT

When a faded newspaperman discovers diaries in a Chicago basement—hand-written epistles from the life of one infamous Judith Campbell Exner—he can scarcely believe his good fortune. Yes, that Judith Campbell Exner, the one who was linked with some of America’s most powerful politicians, entertainers, and criminals as they conspired to rule America.

Our narrator hopes to find another perspective on the story, and he does just that. Not only was she a “go-between” that connected the White House, the mob, and more, but there was another side to her, too. She was a real woman, adrift and defenseless in a dangerous world where nations’ fates hang in the balance. As all the men began betraying and abandoning her, she is pursued relentlessly (by the FBI) into a living hell.

Like most people, this woman was a multi-dimensional character and not just a cardboard doll used for the amusement of men.

The story was revealing and could have been intriguing. However, I was bored almost immediately—despite the exciting tale—by the writer’s style of narration. His narrative wandered and meandered too much for my taste, and instead of moving along to the story itself, he seemingly got caught up in extraneous matters. Perhaps they were important aspects, but they did not serve the story well, in my opinion.

The Go-Between: A Novel of the Kennedy Years, by Frederick Turner, is a book that I can only give three stars, at best.

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.

A PEEK INTO “THE WEDNESDAY SISTERS,” A BOOK REVIEW

51VLpm-cpKL__SX106_It is the Sixties in the Bay Area.  Ah, this seems so familiar!  As I read along about the five women who meet in the park every Wednesday, with their kiddies, the whole thing feels like it could have happened in my life.

That’s what is wonderfully cozy about this book.  The reader feels the connection between the women and gets a little peek into their lives.  The first-person narrator is one of the women, so the whole thing feels even more intimate.

But then it changes into something more, as the women begin writing.  Then the whole purpose of the meetings is writing and critiquing and finding their own voice as women, as people, in a way that’s different for those times.  Yes, they do go to the occasional peaceful protest, but the crux of their time together is about the writing.

But the book veers off again, as each of the women faces some kind of crisis.  First, the marriage that’s torn asunder by the husband’s cheating; then the cancer scare that turns into more than a scare.  As they each bond together to support each other through the tough times, you see the familiarity again…Women and Sisterhood.

This book felt so real that I couldn’t put it down.  I hoped to discover more about their lives, but alas, the final page came anyway.  The writer makes us care about the characters, which is what good writing is all about.