The Last Lovely City, by Alice Adams

I have a friend who is boy-crazy, even now. When she is obsessed with a man, she can go on for hours about him, dissecting every minor nuance of his behavior, every inflection of his words. It can be quite boring. However, I put up with it (for a while, anyway) because when she is not obsessing about a man, she applies that same relentless analysis to books, films, music, politics—the interests that we share. Plus, she can be a lot of fun, coming up with bizarre and hilarious escapades.

Similarly, the early stories in this collection put me off. There was way too much boyfriend angst: does he like me? will he call? should I call him? is it too soon to call him again? The fact that the narrator was usually middle-aged, if not older, added a fillip of interest, but no more than that.

However, the stories where romance becomes secondary, such as the title story, are truly remarkable, full of precise description and insight into human behavior. I love these little windows into the motivations of others. For example, “A Very Nice Day” chronicles a Sunday-lunch party at the home of friends, Patrick and Oliver, and nails the relationship between them in a single sentence about Patrick having prepared the not-very-good luncheon because he does not like to admit that Oliver is the better cook. Immediately, Oliver became clear to me as well: patient, generous, forbearing.

The stories I liked made me go back and look at the others I had dismissed. I found much that had lingered in my mind despite my impatient reading: images such as a living room being an archeological dig, compact descriptions of life in a particular time and place, the nuanced reactions of a reporter (described as “almost old but lively” – how precise is that?) when interviewing women in a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

It is a shame that women are so often pushed to write romance, as if that is the only plot-line available to them. I have heard it in creative writing classes, always addressed to only the women in the class: I liked that story, but I would have liked to hear more about the husband. Doesn’t the main character have a boyfriend? It would be more interesting if the narrator had a love interest. You should include some steamy bedroom scenes.

I think the marginalisation of romance is one reason I like mysteries. In the ones that I enjoy most, if there is any romance at all, it is secondary or even tertiary to the plot. Take Prime Suspect for example. Even more than the crime-solving, I was fascinated by the way this series looked at a woman working in a male-dominated field. Jane Tennison’s relationships with her co-workers, bosses and subordinates, were picked apart and their nuances and subtle changes made visible.

Our lives are not just about romance, not even primarily about romance. We have many stories to tell.

Casa Rossa, by Francesca Marciano

I was drawn to this novel by the settings: southern Italy, Rome, New York. The book evokes these places, particularly the austere beauty of Puglia’s olive trees and red earth, while pulling me into an intriguing story of several generations of women, all told—thankfully—from the single viewpoint of the youngest, Alina.

The story also covers some of the territory of the wonderful miniseries La Meglio Gioventu which I saw recently as part of my Italian class: the violent student uprisings of the 70’s, the organising of the Red Brigade, the assassinations of key political figures. Although not the main thrust of either story, each has a character who is convicted of terrorism and examines how that character changes during her prison years.

Remorse. There are people who are paralysed by the fear of making the wrong decision, people who end up doing nothing. But what about the person who makes a choice, who acts and then finds the consequences not just unexpected but horrific? How do you deal with the remorse? And what about the victims? Is forgiveness possible? Is it enough to move on without forgiving?

My book club read Ian McEwan’s Atonement last year and couldn’t stop talking about it. We spent a long time discussing what it meant to atone for something you had done, how you might do that, and if indeed it was even possible. We compared atonement and redemption, teasing out the differences. We looked at the structures various religions have created to contain and control these needs. I had just been catching up on Joss Whedon’s Angel series, which (in among the funny quips and comic book aspects) had some interesting things to say about the means of atonement and the possibility of redemption.

It is hard for me to separate the rational responses to remorse—justifications, good intentions, recompense for the victims where possible, good works in general—from the emotional response—the crushing responsibility, the endless self-flagellation, the fear of doing harm that keeps you from future action.

One of the things I liked best about this story was the way that the people did not give up on each other. No matter how awful the betrayal or how hurtful the neglect, they found a way to let go of old grievances and reconnect with each other. Add to that the rich Italian light and the warmth of sandstone tiles under bare feet, and you have a perfect read for a late winter ice-storm.

The Songcatcher, by Sharyn McCrumb

Having been involved with traditional music and dance for some years, I was looking forward to reading one of Sharyn McCrumb’s ballad novels. This one, set in Tennessee and North Carolina, centers around a ballad brought from Islay in 1759 by a young sailor. The book meanders between the story of that sailor and his present-day descendents, particularly a young folksinger named Lark. Unfortunately, it also dips into the stories of several neighbors, four intermediary descendents, a rival folksinger, a hostel owner in the next state, and a young 911 volunteer.

Yes, yet another book muddied by too many main characters. We do usually stay with each one for a full chapter, and certainly they are vividly drawn. The afterword gives a clue: apparently, the historical characters are the author’s own ancestors. I heard that a review of Small Island (see the entry for this blog from 19 February) complained that the story suffered from the author’s decision to stick closely to historical events. I think this book has a similar problem. The story of the original sailor—Malcolm—interleaved with the present in interesting ways, but the intermediary descendents were unnecessary and distracting.

The scenes from Malcolm’s time are vividly brought to life. From his childhood on Islay to his life on board ship and his adventures in America, I was pulled into another world. I know Morristown, New Jersey, pretty well, but I had never considered its role in the Revolutionary War until Malcolm explained its strategic location. I felt his discomfort in society, even the small society of his family, and his desire to strike out for more and more remote places. I understood his recognition, when he saw the mountains in what is now Tennessee, that this was where he belonged.

I enjoyed the descriptions of the mountain culture, particularly the changing roles of the songs and the singers. The contrast between the traditional music and professional country music interested me: Lark’s reflections on what makes a career successful, sailors exchanging songs to pass the time and make the work easier, cousins singing on the back porch. I appreciated the irony that the tradition of singing together almost died out over the need to have a performance-quality voice, while with today’s technology, a good voice is no longer so much of a necessity for a professional country singer—it’s gone full circle.

This story was not the first time I have heard the complaint that collectors of traditional music—songcatchers—paid the local men and women who sang the songs for them little or nothing, and then went on to copyright the songs as their own. Legal, yes, but not right. However, knowing what I do about Cecil Sharp, the collector who started the whole thing back in the early 20 th century, I have to agree with the character in this book’s assessment that he was not out for financial gain, but was motivated primarily by a desire to preserve the songs. I am so glad that he did.

What are we missing today that ought to be preserved? It’s odd knowing that people are writing histories about events in which I participated, such as the revival of morris dancing in the latter half of the 20 th century, the second revival. I wish now that I had paid better attention, kept better records. What we were doing didn’t seem all that significant.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith

If this novel hadn’t been for book club, I would have put it down after fifty pages or so. I simply couldn’t work up any interest in what happened, mostly because of the way the story jumped from one character to another, not staying with anyone long enough to do more than sketch out his/her character and story. By way of contrast, in Small Island Andrea Levy manages multiple viewpoints very well but she limits herself to four and stays with each one for chapters at a time. Here, having my attention dragged away from a character every few pages made it impossible for me to care about any of them.

Apparently there is no main character. The person we start with, Jerome, is promising and his situation interesting, but then—aside from a couple of walk-throughs—he disappears for the rest of the book. I also would have liked to hear more about his brother Levi, who again is beautifully set up and then abandoned. Or their mother who gets two or three good scenes. Or Carl, the young poet. Smith has come up with a plethora of potentially intriguing characters; she could have written an entire book about any one of them.

Another reason the book dragged was the triteness of the situation. Please. I am so sick of middle-aged men’s angst when they cheat on their wives with another woman and/or a student. My hopes for a different perspective from this young writer were dashed when she chose to present those scenes through the eyes of—yes—the cheating middle-aged man. I can’t tell if the author adequately captures a point of view so foreign to her; the man certainly sounds like all the other cheating middle-aged men in the canon of American Lit.

The sections set in England come alive in a way that the rest of the book does not. The description of Hampstead Heath in particular is fabulous. Settings on our side of the pond do not work so well. For example, the family’s house is described simply as “a typical New England house” yet it is clearly neither a triple-decker nor a Cape Cod nor anything else particular to the region. And the occasional misplaced British idiom voiced by an American character is further distracting.

There was another reason I hung on to the end. Having just written an essay on beauty, I was hoping for some interesting insights or shrewd questions about the subject, something a little more than the observation that men like to have sex with beautiful girls or that beautiful girls want to be appreciated for more than their looks even as they make use of them. Smith is certainly capable of going deeper: she gives us a brief but powerful description of a shy student’s thoughts about two pictures. Unfortunately, that is the student’s only appearance.

Another scene I loved involved another student revealing to a professor how students use references to tomatoes to describe their classes. Hilarious. And some of the family scenes, such as the mayhem getting everyone out the door in the morning, ring true. Smith uses body language well: an insecure young woman tottering to a party on high heels, a couple positioning themselves on a staircase while conversing. She succeeds, too, at capturing the feel of much of today’s media with all the frenetic jump cuts and samplings (a chunk of Forster, some Roth, a little Cheever). However, in doing so, she sacrifices the depth and multi-dimensionality that make characters and their stories come alive.