The Lake House, by Kate Morton


Summer is here, and no vacation is complete without plenty of books to read. Ebooks made packing easy: just bring my Nook. This year, though, I’ve gone even lighter, reading books on my phone through the Nook and Kindle apps. Which books, though?

For long car trips (I seem to do a lot of these) I love audio books, but must select them carefully. Thrillers make me drive too fast; long-winded sentences or complicated concepts make me tune out because I can’t follow them while driving. And the actor matters as well. If the delivery is too monotone, my eyelids get heavy. I thought I’d chosen a great book for my last trip: one of my favorite authors. However, this particular novel was more of a psychological study; it would have been excellent reading (and I may come back to it) but too slow for a car trip.

If I’m flying I want a book that is absorbing but not too thought-provoking, since its purpose is to distract me from my surroundings and make the time go by quickly. For a recent flight I picked up this novel by Kate Morton, an author new to me, though this is her fifth novel.

It was perfect! I fell into the story and barely came up for air during the long day’s travel.

Sadie Swallow, a disgraced detective keeping her head down at her grandfather’s cottage in Cornwall, goes running and stumbles on a beautiful abandoned house. Fascinated by the house, she becomes riveted by the 70-year-old mystery of the disappearance of the small much-loved boy whose loss so broke his family that they could not bear to return.

The story goes back and forth in time to fill in her past and that of the elderly crime novelist who is the last remaining member of the family who lived there. This kind of time-shifting rarely works, but here Morton handles it brilliantly. Each chapter is a single time period and labeled up front, so there’s no confusion. What really makes it flow are the transitions within the text, the scene at the end of one chapter flowing seamlessly into the first scene of the next chapter; even if there is a huge time gap, the story feels continuous.

The crime novelist, Alice Edevane, older sister of the lost toddler, is easily the most intriguing character in the book. While very successful as a writer, Alice loathes publicity and is impatient with people who don’t meet her standards. Those standards emerge through her interactions with Peter, the man she hires as a personal assistant, and later with Sadie: on time for appointments, clever (in the British sense of intelligent and practical), and a quality I used to call clear through: open and honest, without social artifice—someone you can trust.

I loved spending time with Alice. And also with Sadie. As a very junior female detective she’s smart but a little too willing to go her own way, ignoring orders from above, thus getting on the wrong side of her superiors. She has a bit of a troubled background, hence being brought up by her grandparents, and is too driven by work to care for a houseplant much less a relationship.

In addition to enjoying the characters, I too fell for the house and for the life the family led there before their tragedy. Set in Cornwall and the London I’d just left how could I resist? The atmosphere reminded me a little of the first part of Atonement. I loved Sadie’s grandfather and his life as a widower, making pies for the fête, walking his two dogs. He’s at peace with himself and able to advise Sadie without seeming too good to be true.

Some cross-genre novels shortchange one or another of their genres. For example, The Girl on the Train was a good thriller, but disappointing as a mystery. Here, Morton manages to present a satisfying mystery in a historical novel that also tackles important issues in women’s lives.

There were a couple of things I thought too improbable and if editing the book would have advised Morton to change. But overall a most satisfying read. I’ll certainly take along one of her other novels on my next flight.

Can you recommend a good audio book for a car trip or one for a flight?

Mary Barton, by Elizabeth Gaskell


A recent post by Ellen Moody about Gaskell’s novel North and South reminded me that I hadn’t read anything by this author besides her Life of Charlotte Brontë. I set out to remedy that gap starting with this, her first novel.

Little did I know how relevant to today’s political situation it would turn out to be. As Moody said, many of Gaskell’s books, including North and South and Mary Barton, share a “radical political vision.” The author embodies this vision through characters and plot but also sometimes steps back to give the big picture and further context. Instead of being preachy, though, the novel had me fully immersed and racing to finish it. It’s a bit sentimental at times, but Gaskell manages to keep it moving.

Set in Manchester in 1839, the story concerns two working class families: the Bartons and the Wilsons. John Barton, grieved by the loss of his wife and the terrible economic distress of the time, becomes involved in the trade union and Chartist movements. He rails against the gap between rich and poor, between mill owners and workers. When his closest friend, George Wilson, remarks that Barton never liked the “gentlefolks”, Barton responds:

“And what good have they ever done me that I should like them . . . If I am sick, do they come and nurse me? If my child lies dying (as poor Tom lay, with his white wan lips quivering, for want of better food than I could give him), does the rich man bring the wine or broth that might save his life? If I am out of work for weeks in the bad times, and winter comes, with black frost, and keen east wind, and there is no coal for the grate, and no clothes for the bed, and the thin bones are seen through the ragged clothes, does the rich man share his plenty with me, as he ought to do, if his religion wasn’t a humbug? . . . No, I tell you, it’s the poor, and the poor only, as does such things for the poor. Don’t think to come over me with th’ old tale, that the rich know nothing of the trials of the poor. I say, if they don’t know, they ought to know. We’re their slaves as long as we can work; we pile up their fortunes with the sweat of our brows; and yet we are to live as separate as if we were in two worlds . . .”

Both men fall on hard times as the mill cuts back on workers (but not on the mill owners’ lavish entertainments). John Barton and George Wilson end up relying on their children’s income. George’s hard-working son Jem has long loved John’s daughter Mary, but she has been walking out with Harry Carson, a mill owner’s son. She believes he intends to marry her, but of course he doesn’t plan on crossing that social boundary.

With food prices rising and jobs disappearing, families are starving. Gaskill’s descriptions of the suffering of the poor are shocking. As she explains in her Preface, she hopes through her story to convey the desperate situation of the working poor and their resentment of the mill owners, in the hope that those who can will be moved to help through legislation and private charity.

I recently visited the Foundling Museum in London to explore the history of the Foundling Hospital established in 1739 by Thomas Coram. He was horrified by the number of babies left to die on the street by families that could not afford to feed them. The institution provided food, clothing, shelter and education, helping the grown children to find jobs or enter the military. While the hospital closed in 1954, the charity continues today as Coram.

What moved me to tears were the loving notes left for the children by desperate mothers and the displays of tokens left with them: a string of beads, a ribbon, thimble or crudely etched medallion—something unique that a mother returning to claim a child could describe to identify her son or daughter. Few could afford to return, though.

Outside, behind the statue of Thomas Coram there is a little sculpture by Tracy Emin of a mitten on the iron fence, like the tokens inside. People have tied ribbons to the nearby fence spikes.

It is children who suffer the most from the great disparity between rich and poor. Gaskell’s genius is to show us that children on both sides suffer, though differently.

What novel have you read that addresses social problems along with the characters’ story?


The Rogue and Other Portuguese Stories, by Julieta Almeida Rodrigues


This is the second collection of stories from Rodrigues, but the first I’ve read. They are set in Portugal, but more than that, they aim to get at the essence of the Portuguese character. In her Foreword, Rodrigues states her intention to reveal aspects of Portuguese identity. She says, “Written from a sociological perspective, my narratives illuminate a wide range of topics in contemporary Portugal.”

That’s a big burden to put on a book. In some ways, the stories seem more like character portraits than stories, but more about that later.

True to the author’s intention, the stories feature a variety of situations: a woman in prison taking a yoga class, a young lawyer in his first job eager to please his boss, a fourteen-year-old girl writing a school composition on post-colonialism in Portugal. Some protagonists are professionals; some are down-on-their-luck aristocrats. There are prostitutes, abuse victims, battered women.

Even with this variety of voices, though, there is a curious constancy of tone, something calm and confident.

This comes partly from the prose—the syntax and word choice—but also from the plot structure. While most writers here in the U.S. are encouraged to start their stories in media res—in the middle of the action that sets the story’s events in motion—these stories usually start with a leisurely summary of background information on the protagonist or, in some cases, the setting. Even the title story, which begins with dialogue, is a woman telling the background information to a lawyer.

One of my writing partners is Portuguese, so I understand the different assumptions about structure. In Portugal, I’m told, it is expected that writers present the background and their evidence in measured and logical order before getting to the point, whether it’s a thesis statement or a plot goal. Instead of being frustrated or bored, I found these establishing shots comforting.

The other structural aspect that I noticed is where the stories end. Instead of ending with climax where the protagonist either succeeds or fails at his or her goal, each story ends at the beginning of a turning point, when the balance just begins to tip one way or the other. Expecting more complications, I was surprised each time. It felt as though we were just getting a glimpse into a slice of the protagonist’s life rather than a full story about them.

Still, I enjoyed the stories. And it’s good to be reminded that there are many ways to put a story together. As Paul Harding says, “. . . it’s nice to think that if you follow a prefabricated set of rules you’ll get a story or a poem or a novel out of it. But a huge part of being a writer is discovering your own intellectual and aesthetic autonomy, and how you best get the best words onto the page.”

What stories set in Portugal have you read?

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Risk Pool, by Richard Russo


Russo is one of my favorite writers. I’ve written about his first book, Mohawk. His second novel is also set in that fictional town and like the first is hilarious and true, full of flawed and damaged characters whom Russo treats with compassion even as he details their absurdities.

Ned Hall narrates the story for us. Although he uses the voice of an adult, he enters fully into the thoughts and feelings of his younger self. When he is six, Ned makes the mistake of telling people at school that his absent father was dead, thus bringing Sam Hall back into the lives of himself and his long-suffering mother. As a result, in addition to working at the phone company and raising a boy on her own, Jenny Hall has to suffer incursions that feel like raids by Sam, who manages to stay one step ahead of the local police and their restraining order. Then Sam kidnaps Ned. It’s just for an overnight fishing trip, but Jenny has no way of knowing that, and she is waiting for them with a gun.

Of course, my sympathies are with Ned’s mother, but this isn’t her story. It is Ned’s story of his tangled relationship with the father one of whose friends said “should have been issued with a warning label.” Like some New Englanders I’ve known, Sam manages to cobble together a ramshackle sort of life with seasonal jobs, unemployment, local bars, and the occasional girlfriend. His philosophy is that when things start to seem impossibly bad, something would “give”: a loan, a job, a lucky bet at the track.

Of course, what Ned really wants is for his father to love him. One of my favorite sections of the book is when Ned goes to live with his father for a few years; the culture shock is there but also the easy adaptability of a child. This coming-of-age story continues into Ned’s adulthood and beyond. Their curious relationship is epitomized by Sam’s usual “Well?”, expecting Ned to catch up on his own, without any parental guidance. Ned sees through his father, even at an early age noting the way Sam takes over a conversation about Jenny’s breakdown, and concluding “It will always be his story, about how he hadn’t believed it could be true.”

Even though Mohawk is in upstate New York, it and its denizens remind me so much of the milltowns I knew in Massachusetts that I kept forgetting where we were. It reminded me of Andre Dubus’s memoir Townie , both in its setting—in Dubus’s case Haverill, Massachusetts—and in the story’s focus on his relationship with his absent father. I also loved the way Sam’s friends, some of them stable but more of them disreputable, watch out for Ned and try to help him. This aspect of the book reminded me strongly of J. R. Moehringer’s memoir The Tender Bar. While Russo’s book is fiction, it has the strength and power of these memoirs. I admit to being a bit fascinated by these books about men and the way they are together when there are no women around. These stories depict a tenderness and a supportive web that are at odds with the stereotypes.

What coming-of-age story have you read that resonated with you?