Amy and Isabelle, by Elizabeth Strout

Like many others, I was blown away by Strout’s Olive Kitteridge. I thought it a remarkable set of linked short stories that came together as a portrait of a peculiar and—to me—fascinating woman. So I went looking for her earlier novels, including this, her first novel.

Isabelle and her 16-year-old daughter, Amy, inhabit an uncomfortable edge of the small town of Shirley Falls, Maine. On the eastern side of the river lies Oyster Point, the part of town where the professional classes live with its simple Congregational church. The western side, known as the Basin, is dominated by the mill and the Catholic church. Although Isabelle works in the mill’s office, she chose to live in Oyster Point, with dreams of moving up in the world, but in essence stranding herself and her daughter between two worlds.

As the story opens, Isabelle’s desire for quiet and order and respectability, as well as her close relationship with her daughter, have been ruthlessly thwarted. Amy, who is working in the mill’s office for the summer, is in disgrace and it has something to do with a Mr. Robertson coming to town.

The opening is actually quite interesting. None of the characters appears on the first page. Instead, it is a description of all the strangeness of that summer: the terrible heat that dried up the river, leaving the stench of the mill’s effluence; the crops that didn’t grow right; the UFOs that had been sighted up north. It’s a different sort of in media res opening: we immediately know that the time is out of joint, with no one to set it right.

While Amy’s actions seem to have been the cause of the disruptions in her and Isabelle’s lives, the story takes us deeper into the pretenses and fantasies of all the characters as we move backward and forward in time. Amy and her new friend Stacy have banded together as outsiders at school, sneaking into the woods during breaks to smoke cigarettes. Amy envies Stacy her boyfriend, but doesn’t recognise her friend’s morning sickness for what it is. Her solid world is rocked as Amy tries to come to terms with her emerging sexuality and to find a place for herself other than the one her mother has prepared for her.

I am tired of glut of novels about middle-aged and older men falling in love with teenaged girls. Oh their joy and heartbreak. Oh their cruel, middle-aged and boring wives. How refreshing to have here, for once, the story from the girl’s point of view. And it is brilliantly done. So many details took me back to my own teen years, my confused and inchoate yearnings.

I love the portrait of Isabelle, hamstrung by her own yearnings, trying to break out of her narrow world. The portraits of the other women in the office, Fat Bev and Dottie and the others, are equally superb. I knew women like these when I worked in a factory. I love the way they rely on each other and the competitions and kindnesses they offer each other. As Avery Clark’s secretary, Isabelle sits among them but is in a superior position, isolated and stranded at work as at home. Strout occasionally soars up to the 10,000-foot level and gives us an omniscient view of the townsfolk as a whole, as in the first page. This unusual tactic isolates Isabelle and Amy even more, denying them even the empathy of the reader.

Although I’ve not lived in a small town, I recognise the way lives are intertwined, the way you cannot hide from your mistakes. I recognise the feuds and the friendships, the shifting alliances. I feel as though I’ve lived another life.

What book about small town life have you read?

A Poetry Handbook, by Mary Oliver

Oliver has produced an excellent introduction to poetry. Although it is written for the beginning writer, the book is also tremendously useful for the beginning reader, someone who would like to read poetry but would like some guidance on what to look for. Many of us were persuaded by grade school English classes that poetry was complicated and difficult to understand. Even if we thought we understood a poem, it turned out there were all kinds of hidden meanings that we’d missed.

Oliver lays it out clearly with plenty of examples to illustrate her points. She covers the use of sound, not just of words but of their components. She goes into detail, explaining semi-vowels, aspirates and mutes. She takes Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening apart to show how the sounds work, but then reassures the despairing beginner, that these tools of alliteration, assonance and onomatopoeia are things anyone can learn and then, once confident, forget. You will be able to use them without consciously thinking of them.

In an extended chapter on the line, Oliver explains how meter and line length contribute to the emotional experience of the poem. She reviews all those pesky terms like dactyl and spondee and anapest, showing how they are used to imbue the poem with movement and emotion. Even for an experienced poet, reviewing these basics can be helpful. I appreciated being reminded of patterns I rarely use.

She gives examples of ways to vary the rhythm of the line for different effects, adding that “Rhythm is one of the most powerful of pleasures.” She also notes something that has interested me lately: that different readers may find different rhythms in a poem, stress different syllables. To illustrate, she provides four ways to read Keats’s line “Bright star! would I were as steadfast as thou art—“.

Because of my interest in individual words, I especially enjoyed her chapter on diction or word choice. She notes that the factors one considers as one selects or discards a word are sound, accuracy and connotation. I also found her chapter on form and free verse to be exceptionally useful for those recurrent discussions of whether a particular poem is really prose broken into lines.

Imagery of course lies at the core of my poetry. I like the way she brings in sensory detail. Also, this strikes home: “The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject.” She says that if a poem about flowers is “thin”, it is most likely because the poet “has not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

I highly recommend this book to beginning readers and writers, as well as to experienced poets who would like a refresher.

What book would you recommend to someone who wants to learn how to appreciate poetry?

Kinder Than Solitude, by Yiyun Li

I thoroughly enjoyed Li’s collection of short stories, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, and looked forward to reading this novel. It begins with the death of a woman, Shaoai, who has been incapacitated since being poisoned 21 years earlier. Boyang, a prosperous businessman and friend of the family, is handling the funeral arrangements. He has emailed news of the death to his childhood friends Moran and Ruyu, women who are now living in the U.S. but expects no answer from them. There has been no answer to any of his regular emails about Shaoai’s condition.

Ruyu, an orphan brought up by two Catholic great-aunts, had learned to hold herself aloof from others. She had God in her life and needed no one else. She is sent to Beijing for school, to live with Shaoai’s family. Boyang and Moran, inseparable friends, live in the same courtyard and adopt the peculiar girl, including her in their normal childhood pursuits, such as biking and swimming, hoping to bring her out of herself and making her more like them: warm and open and happy.

However, as we get to know the three as adults, it becomes apparent that just the opposite has happened. Moran and Boyang, like Ruyu, shut themselves off from others. And from the past. The “coldness of silence” holds each of them in an icy fortress.

The story moves back and forth in time as well as alternating between the three former friends. It has elements of a murder mystery: who poisoned Shaoai? The chemical was traced to Boyang’s mother’s lab, which the three friends had just visited. It also has elements of a political allegory: Shaoai’s poisoning occurred just after the Tiananmen Square protests. A little older than the three friends, her radical politics had cost her a place at university. Her silencing, gradual decline, and death reflect the fate of the protestors and their dreams of democracy.

While I wanted to learn who poisoned Shaoai, I struggled with much of the book. Their sad and drab lives do not make for the most enjoyable reading. There are no large events to spark the long stretch between being introduced to these peculiar people and learning the truth. Or something like the truth. I enjoyed Li’s prose, though some of the philosophical bits made me stop and reread them several times, koans that only reluctantly yielded up a semblance of meaning.

I kept reading because I wondered what would happen to these three people, so damaged by a single event in their childhood, their lives warped and left empty. Or rather kept empty, by constant and ruthless exercise of the will. We all find our own balance between solitude and society, but these three represent something quite new to me. That to me is the real mystery, more urgent than knowing what actually caused Shaoai’s death.

What novel have you read that contains a mystery, yet is not a traditional mystery novel?

The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard

Through swirling snow Abby Reynolds catches sight of her elderly neighbor, Nadine Newquist , struggling through drifts on the old cemetery road, dressed only in a deep rose bathrobe. Abby brakes, which sends her old truck into a spin and then long skid, backwards towards town, picking up speed and making her stomach drop as if on a roller coaster, back the way she’d come, backwards in time.

And we’re off. Pickard’s story of small town lives, the tangled life-long friendships, the secrets and lies, careens on with the reader, breathless, racing to keep up.

Abby owns a small Lawn & Landscape business outside the Kansas town of Small Plains. Nadine is the mother of Abby’s long-lost love, Mitch, who left without a word seventeen years earlier, on the frigid January night a teenaged girl was found murdered. The girl was never identified, and the town buried her. Since then, some people have claimed miraculous and healing powers for the girl they call the Virgin of Small Plains.

The story moves around in time, taking us back to that night when everything changed and then into the present again with the search for Nadine. Abby’s best friend, Rex, the sheriff, son of the former sheriff, watches with dismay as Abby seems to have settled into a relationship with his brother, Patrick, the town’s bad boy. Mitch debates whether to return to his hometown.

I wanted to study this book, which was recommended to me as one that compelled you to turn the pages, one that got a grip on you and wouldn’t let you go. I wondered how that could work without car chases and ticking clocks, but I certainly wasn’t going to find out, not on that first read anyway. No, I just wanted to pry out all the secrets and understand, not just what had happened, but why.

Only when I finished was I able to go back and find some of Pickard’s techniques. There are many truly wonderful scenes, set pieces almost, that call out our own memories, making us sympathise with the characters. There are mysterious moments, like the woman in the rose bathrobe in the snow, that make us read on to find out the story behind them—why was she there? Pickard expertly withholds information until you can’t bear for her not to reveal it. Even if you guess at some of what happened, you want to know why. Plus she’s not afraid to go big: often novels seem to drag a bit in the middle as authors save their good stuff for the climax, but Pickard doesn’t hesitate to throw it all at us, and then do it again.

There are flaws to the book, though I could only see them in retrospect. The multiple points of view, many of them unnecessary to the story, keep the characters at arm’s length. I discussed this book in two different book clubs and both were unable to decide who the main character was. I went with Abby because she was the first person we met, but a strong case could be made for Rex, Mitch and a couple of others. After the mesmerizing first part of the book, the plot seemed to take over and characters relegated to the back seat.

We also struggled with genre. The story has some elements of a mystery, a romance, and even magical realism. It includes some of the conventions of each, but not enough of any one to satisfy expectations. I settled for calling it a small-town drama. It probably says more about me than the book, but I interpreted all the supposedly magical elements as realistic, somewhat unlikely but not outside the bounds of possibility. I love out-and-out magical realism like Borges, Marquez and Allende write, but this kind of teasing maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t didn’t work for me.

The ending disappointed almost everyone, with things tied up a little too neatly, a little too quickly and conveniently.

Still, the book is a wonder. Pickard captures the Kansas landscape, its weather and prairie flowers. She also captures the rhythms and relationships of small-town life—or so I am assured, being a city girl myself. Used to relative anonymity, I have trouble imagining the comfort and claustrophobia of a small town where everyone knows, not just your name and everything you’ve ever done, but your parents and theirs before them.

I never fail to be fascinated by the damage caused by secrets and lies. Perhaps they are even harder to avoid in a small community. Most of all, though, I was fascinated by the way people elevated the unknown, murdered girl into some kind of saint. I remember visiting Althorp, where Princess Diana is buried, and being shocked by the busloads of sick and injured people who expected her to heal them. One of my friends said that desperate people look for solace anywhere they can. She added that when you know nothing about someone, you can attribute any qualities to them—something we’ve seen happen all too often with celebrities and athletes.

Have you read a book recently that you could not put down?