Monday, May 30, 2011

Le Divorce by Diane Johnson

A California and a French family clash when the children go through a divorce

The theme and the overarching plot of this novel is practically the same as "Persian Nights"; the clueless Americans parachuted into a polite bemused foreign culture, though Paris is not in such a state of crisis as pre revolutionary Tehran. I would say this book is expertly plotted, as a fast moving farce. The concluding set piece takes place, this time not at Persepolis but Euro Disney. That climax is followed quickly by a genuine tragedy.

I was a little timid about reading this, because I had so much loved Diane Johnson’s earlier black comedies and this is her most famous book, so I thought it might be sitcommy or sentimental, but no, the satire remains razor sharp, but communicated by a youthful exuberant compelling yet still ditzy first person narrator. I enjoyed reading her voice very much.

Isabel Walker, wealthy young Santa Barbaran, comes to Paris to help her older sister Roxeanne with child care. Only Roxeanne has a secret- her French husband has abandoned her. Reluctantly Roxeanne agrees to a divorce, French style. But there’s that matter of a two million dollar family painting she has gifted her faithless husband. The rest of the American family comes to Paris to investigate. In the meantime, Isabel, whose name echoes that of Isabel Archer, another expatriate dealing with unbreakable European traditions, grows very fond of Paris, its food, its fashion and its 70 year old politicians.

The energy and the comedy come from the culture clash between the two families. Many of the sentences were full of a love of language and a love of life. The plot elements, the Hermes bag, the painting of St Ursula, the glazed bowls, were inserted discreetly. Also, I really admired the way the dinner scenes with several characters were perfectly clear. And even though the story was nominally first person, there were plenty of glimpses into other characters’ heads, in other parts of the world.

I thought it was delightful.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

So Much For That by Lionel Shriver

Americans aren’t ready, financially and emotionally, when people die

I had mixed feelings about this novel. The set up was excruciating – I felt like my head was positioned between two clanging cymbals. Pages after pages of characters spouting polemics about the state of health care in America. Is this even a novel, I wondered? The only thing that kept me from quitting was that I didn’t want to quit a book two weeks in a row. So I stuck with it.

I’m glad I did. The novel is about Shep, a mild mannered millionaire (although a million dollars clearly means nothing nowadays) whose dilettantish wife Glynis gets cancer, destroying the frugal Shep’s dream of getting away from it all for a cheap Third World retirement. Shep, (who comes across like a doormat) spends his last dime fighting the incurable cancer (this action is not really motivated). All the while Glynis refuses to accept the fact she’s dying. Meanwhile’s Shep’s dad needs nursing home care, and family friend Flicka has an incurable genetic disease. The moral and financial dilemmas of each situation are explored quite effectively.  I actually learned quite a bit about health care.

In a way this novel reminded me of Larry’s Party by Carol Shields, in terms of the not so macho main character, although that story was executed with much more artistry.  It is also in the tradition of Upton Sinclair (not that I've ever read any Upton Sinclair).  A novel addressing a social problem - that of unfair and inefficient health care.

In the last third of the book, the story got much more compelling as we left off the sloganeering and the author turned her attention towards the family and the sensitive portrayal of Glynis’s death. One of the themes was our society's abandonment of the sick and dying. It made me resolve to be more diligent about keeping in touch with the ill.  So perhaps this novel achieved its moral purpose as well.

Was the painful setup worth the beautiful end? I am undecided whether I will ever read a Lionel Shriver novel again. If I do it won't be for a long time.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell

In 1800, a Dutch man encounters the closed Japanese society.

This novel is about Jacob De Zoet, exiled to the Dutch colony off Japan in order to make a fortune. His fortune making is interrupted by his fascination with the scarred young Japanese woman learning to be a midwife. Therefore, I suppose this is a historical novel, so in addition to the pleasure of the story, we will also learn something about Japanese history.

I seriously considered bailing on around page 50, did so on page 90. Part of it may have been my American addiction to dramatic tension, and part of it may have been that it was taking too terribly long to to set up the story. Although I felt we were headed in the right direction, with the vivid introduction of the two lovers in two wonderfully written set pieces. But then we got pages and pages and pages of hundreds of characters speaking in a sprightly manner about things expository or bills of lading. I just was not keeping track of anyone of them and only wanted to get back to the lovers, though Jacob seemed a milquetoast.

To me, it was like watching stick figures placed on a diorama.  Zzz.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Eight White Nights by Andre Aciman

An overarticulate young man and overarticulate young woman discover they are soul mates.

I liked this book much more than  "Call Me By Your Name", even though this book was probably twice as annoying. Once again, the stakes are too low, the narrator is a question mark, the girl, the love object, is highly precious and an emotional sadist. Don't these kids have jobs? Clara is sketchily described as beautiful but all she eats are massive mounds of muffins and French fries. But I just couldn’t put the book down. The subject is romantic love.

The first twenty pages were difficult to get through, but then I relaxed and let the exquisite sentences wash over me. Our narrator is a nervous Nellie who is so terrified of screwing things up he never advances. This story is not so much about sex, in fact it’s not about sex at all – it’s about recognizing your soul mate. Clara and her Prinz Oskar, highly educated New Yorkers, enjoying themselves in modern day Manhattan. Because of the tragedy of Nazism long ago, these two are exiles from their true home of Europe.

Is love a delusion? What is the evolutionary purpose of romantic love? Clara becomes an obsession with him and he with her. And sometimes the novel degenerates into a fascinating study of telephone tag.

This was one I read on the plane so I had more patience, perhaps more patience than this deserved. I was really entranced.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Trespass by Rose Tremain

Trespassing has severe consequences

This was such a well constructed novel. I felt like I was in the hands of a master. The story is a puzzle, with mirrored characters and circumstances, and concerns two brother sister pairs, coming to the end of their lives, in the drought stricken south of France.

The English pair is Anthony and Veronica Verey; the French pair Aramon and Audrun Lunel. The French pair are certifiable, the English pair merely eccentric. The plot is that the rich Anthony, who has decided to leave his faltering antiques business, wishes to settle near his sister and her lover in the south of France. He would like to buy the Lunel’s house, or mas, but it seems that there is a family feud about ownership of the French property. Also, Veronica’s lover is not happy to see Anthony arrive.

An air of creepiness hangs over the story, established by the child’s scream at the end of the first chapter. The novel is not just about property disputes and surveyors lines and guests who stay too long – it’s about horrible crimes of omission and commission against innocent children. One technique was to reveal a memory and throughout the course of the novel return to that memory until the reader understands its full terrible scope.

What was humorous to me was how easily these supposedly dried up old women felt into murderous fantasies. Or murderous realities.

And finally, the prose was simple, beautiful and poetic.