On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan

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On a July evening in 1962, a young newlywed couple sits down to dinner in their hotel suite on the Dorset coast. Bound by convention, they continue eating a meal they do not want, their attention drawn to the bed in the next room. Edward and Florence, both nervous, reflect on how their love for each other has brought them to this moment.

It may be hard for those born after the sexual revolution of the late 1960s and the availability of the Pill to understand the repression and gamesmanship of the time that came before. What little Florence has heard about sex disgusts her, but she is determined to do her duty. Edward has had only one experience, which did not go well, and has been kept at arm’s length by his beloved throughout their courtship.

McEwan expertly builds the picture of the time period and of these two—one a student of history and the other an apparently gifted violinist—who come from different levels of society. And yet, as I’ve found with other of McEwan’s novels, this story is mostly an intellectual pleasure.

I keep reading his novels because they are so well-constructed and so well-written. Individual sentences sparkle and delight. Yet there is something about McEwan’s novels that leaves me cold and unsatisfied.

Maybe it’s the sense that they are more an exercise than a story. The chessboard is laid out with care, each element with its purpose. The theme here is interesting: what we don’t say or do; society’s constraints versus how we feel. I find moments I recognize—ones I thought no one else knew—like the first thrill, dark and irresistible, of loosing the angry words suppressed in a lifetime of good behavior.

The plot is clear and cogent, from the usual McEwan beginning with a surprising event that changes everyone’s lives. What’s different here is that the book goes back instead of forward from that event. Only at the very end comes a quick summary of the resulting future. It is also different because it’s about what doesn’t happen. No stranger comes in and changes everything.

The characters are also well-constructed. I found Florence a little unrealistic, that she could be so completely frigid sexually and yet such a remarkable and passionate violinist. I wondered if perhaps there was some early trauma. McEwan drops a couple of hints of possible abuse, but—much as I appreciate subtlety and being left to figure things out by myself—it’s too little to make a case. I read an interview later where McEwan said that he left a few clues but didn’t want to make it explicit. I don’t think that is fair to the reader.

In the end, though, I don’t care about what happens to the characters. They seem like puppets being moved around. The story doesn’t engage my emotions. However, McEwan does bring back that time vividly. I found myself thinking of the 1961 film Splendor in the Grass, and how clearly I recall it after all these decades. This book, on the other hand, is fading quickly.

Have you read a novel that you appreciated, even admired, but didn’t enjoy?

Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor

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McGregor’s latest book is not for everyone. There are no car chases or spies or broken-down police detectives. There isn’t even a traditional protagonist. Reservoir 13 is the story of a village in the Peak District and its surrounding countryside. It’s a story about time, stretching over 13 years with each chapter covering a single year of the village’s life.

In quiet, exquisite prose, McGregor immerses us in this life. Holidays are celebrated, with fireworks at New Year’s and Guy Fawkes Day and a pantomime at Christmas. The agricultural life of the village goes on: haying, getting the cows in for their evening milking, looking for the sheep lost in a snowstorm. Hawthorne blooms; voles burrow under the hedges, fox cubs play outside their den.

Townspeople appear and reappear: a family who get called away from their sheep farm to rebuild bridges knocked out by storms and to do other heavy work around the village, a woman who is barely keeping her head above water caring for her autistic son, a man who visits his aging mother at Christmas and tries to avoid meeting up with his sisters, a woman who helps her elderly neighbor by walking his dog, and many more. In the course of the 13 years we follow children growing into their young adulthood, pairing off, breaking up, finding new loves.

At first I was afraid that I would have trouble following all these different characters, but in fact I had no problem keeping them straight. The author always provided small but necessary clues to remind me of who the person was and their relationship to others.

My only criticism of the book—and it is partially of the author and partly of the publisher—is that it begins with the disappearance of a 13-year-old girl. She and her parents, who are staying in the village over New Year’s, go for a walk and somehow get separated. By starting this way and by the promotional material, it sounds like it’s going to be a mystery, but it is not.

Instead, it is an examination in part—and only in part—of the effect of this event on the life of the town. As you can imagine, while the disappearance dominates the first year, over 13 years it begins to fade to an occasional memory, however much some individuals are changed by it.

The misleading description of the book as being about the girl’s disappearance sets up expectations that detract from the real pleasures to be found here. I almost came to see the disappearance as a clumsy attempt to start with a bang, in media res as we writers are advised to do. Yet nothing else here is clumsy.

I listened to this book. Some stories are better suited for audiobooks than others. I think I would have enjoyed reading it as well, but listening to it provided a sweet, almost trance-like pleasure. I started listening to it on a road trip but it was a little too quiet. However, during peaceful times at home or those sleepless hours in the middle of the night, it was exactly the right thing. I must have listened to it four times over by now. I even go back to chapters out of order now that I know the story. I never tire of it.

I love the rhythm of the year, the description of nature’s cycles, and the cycles of peoples lives: divorces, deaths, first loves. One of McGregor’s techniques to reinforce these cycles is to repeat certain phrases or sentences with slight variations. I love the image of the river that runs through town that turns over itself under the bridge and carries plumes of dirt over the weir. It reminds me of the quote from Heraclitus (as translated in my edition of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations) “You can’t step twice into the same river.” We see the four children we see grow into young adults trying to do just that as their own personal ritual. Another interpretation of Heraclitus’s thought

. . . is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but something much more subtle and profound. It is that some things stay the same only by changing. One kind of long-lasting material reality exists by virtue of constant turnover in its constituent matter. Here constancy and change are not opposed but inextricably connected. A human body could be understood in precisely the same way, as living and continuing by virtue of constant metabolism–as Aristotle for instance later understood it. On this reading, Heraclitus believes in flux, but not as destructive of constancy; rather it is, paradoxically, a necessary condition of constancy, at least in some cases (and arguably in all).

McGregor’s remarkable story embodies this paradox. It is told in both linear and circular time—a remarkable achievement. The mystery here is not so much the disappearance of the girl, but the mystery of time, the center of this paradox of change and constancy.

This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor. it happens rarely, but sometimes I will read the first page of a book and think to myself: OK stop. You need to slow down and take your time and enjoy every second of reading this book. It almost never happens, but it did with this book.

Have you read a book that you just want to read over and over?

The Flight of the Maidens, by Jane Gardam

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Recently I encouraged my new book club to read Tell the Wolves I’m Home, by Carol Rifka Brunt, a book which I enjoyed tremendously. Some people in the book club enjoyed it, but a couple of others said that they were put off by it and skimmed over it to read the ending. They said that because it was the story of a 13-year-old girl, they felt that they had lived through that stage and suffered that angst and did not want to relive it. I was surprised because part of why I loved the story so much was that I identified so strongly with the protagonist. I loved her imagination and could certainly identify with her struggles with her sister.

I expect that those same book club members would not enjoy this novel by Jane Gardam. It is the story of three young women who are a little older at 18. As it begins, they have just learned that not only have they gotten into the excellent universities to which they have applied, but they have received the state grants that will enable them to attend. The story then covers the two months as they prepare to leave home.

This is a remarkable time, this time of disentangling oneself from parents and childhood friends. Even more terrifying and exciting is that in this liminal space you can determine who you want to be, now that you have this great opportunity to present yourself as a different person to the world.

When you go off to school, where no one knows you, you can leave behind the person you’ve been for 18 years. Gardam’s choice of time period adds to the uncertainty: it’s 1946; the Second World War has only been over for a year; and everyone is adjusting to the new nuclear reality and the shocking news from Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz.

Hefty has decided that at university she will be called by her full name Hester. She’s eager to escape from her clinging intrusive mother, whom she cannot help but love, just as she loves her father, who was greatly damaged in World War I. Once a promising scholar, he now digs graves and wanders about.

Her brilliant best friend Una has become a bit more distant this year, since Hetty took up with—and became engaged to—a pleasant milquetoast of a man. Una has been spending much of her time with her longtime friend Ray, once the fish boy and now working for the railroad. Una and Ray are mad for cycling but curiously silent with each other. Una’s mother operates a run-down hair salon in their home and has a hap-hazard approach to parenting

The third girl is Leiselotte, a German Jew brought to England in the 1939 kindertransport and placed with a Quaker couple. She has not been notified of her parents’ fate all these seven years. A quiet girl, who spends her free time knitting, she has kept to herself up till now, but is thrown together with Una and Hetty by their awards.

Like my friends I remember only too clearly that time of my life and at first was not sure that I wanted to relive it. However, I have been charmed by many of Jane Gardam’s novels and had great faith that she would intrigue me. I was not disappointed. Gardam fills out the cast with marvelously eccentric English characters and, as always, her prose is acerbic enough to offset any incipient nostalgia for the past.

I was most intrigued by the push-pull between the girls and their families at a time when it was unusual for girls to go off to university. With humor and insight, Gardam navigates these subtle currents of love and independence.

Does the age of the protagonist make a difference when you are choosing what to read next?

White Dog, by Romain Gary

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A friend loaned me this out-of-print book after we’d had a discussion about race in the United States. The story takes place in 1968 and was published two years later in France and the U.S.

A Russian émigré to France, Gary was at that time the French consul general, living in Los Angeles with his wife, actress and civil rights activist Jean Seberg, their son and several pets.

One day their sweet-natured dog brings home a new friend, a German Shepherd who seems not only gentle but extremely intelligent. All goes well until a man arrives to clean the pool—a man who happens to be black—and the dog erupts into a vicious rage.

Gary eventually discovers that this dog whom he loves and who adores him is in fact a white dog, that is, a dog who has been trained and bred to attack black people and only black people. Such dogs were used at the time by law enforcement in the South, and also as protection by whites who feared a violent black uprising—a possibility that was certainly in the air in 1968.

Though he claims to be a cynical man, Gary is seized by a rare moment of hope and resolves to train the dog not to hate anymore. Perhaps he can prove that social behavior can be unlearned, not just by this dog, but by the country itself, which has been seized by paroxysms of rage, rocked by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the resulting riots.

He takes the dog to a ranch owned by a friend of his who trains animals for the movies. A black keeper there, who is expert at milking venom from snakes, makes retraining the dog his personal mission.

Gary brings a European perspective to the issues of race that were roiling the country in 1968, a time I remember only too well. Mocking non-violent activists, he circles around the idea of violence as a solution. One of his close friends is black Muslim leader calling for war against the whites—the real thing, not a metaphor. At the same time, Gary mocks the liberals—including his wife who’s become involved with funding the Black Panthers—for their posturing and ineffectual swipes at the problem.

He is not ashamed to reveal his proclivity for running away from difficult situations and spends much of the book traveling. At one point he returns to Paris in time to egg on the students rioting in the streets.

I was dismayed to discover that this supposed memoir is in fact something Gary called a fictionalized memoir. To my mind, there is no such thing. Memoirs are nonfiction, so if it is fiction then it is not a memoir.

Deliberately fictionalizing things in what is supposed to be a memoir does a disservice to all memoirs. Their power comes from the fact that they are true. Certainly it is a particular person’s truth—and we all know how different that can be from one person to another—and they have been shaped by what is included and what is left out. Still, they carry the force of personal witness.

My opinion of this book went down when I learned that it was not true. I am not alone in my dismay at the mixing of fiction and memoir. Look at the howl of betrayal over James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces.

Still, it was enlightening to revisit that explosive year, and to compare it to today’s social justice movements.

Have you read a book, seen a film, or attended a lecture that has given you a different perspective on issues around race?

Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, by Toni Morrison

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Published in 1992 but still relevant today, this work of literary criticism looks at how writers create characters different from themselves, specifically how white writers use black characters in their work. As a writer she must imagine others and, thinking about that process, she became curious as to how black characters are portrayed in the U.S. literary canon, which at the time was almost exclusively white.

Morrison also looks at the effect on the work of these white writers as they pretend that race is not a factor in their work. “What became transparent were the self-evident ways that Americans choose to talk about themselves through and within sometimes allegorical, sometimes metaphorical, but always choked representation of an Africanist presence.”

Applying this new critical approach, Morrison describes the deliberately constructed Africanist persona and how it functions in the American literary imagination, examining works by Faulkner, William Styron, Hemingway, and others.

She looks at the silence around race, for example, in Henry James’s What Maisie Knew and the lack of critical attention to the black woman who is the agent of moral choice in that novel. In Willa Cather’s story “Sapphira and the Slave Girl”, Morrison’s reading of race shows Sapphira not so much a cruel mistress as a desperate and disappointed woman whose social superiority is the only thing she has left to validate her self-image.

Examining American literature through this lens is fascinating. Morrison looks at the way authors such as Melville and Twain use the image of a slave population to investigate problems of human freedom and the fear of failure or powerlessness in white people. She shows how these authors relocate internal conflicts to slaves whose voices are silent.

These speculations have led me to wonder whether the major and championed characteristics of our national literature—individualism, masculinity, social engagement versus historical isolation; acute and ambiguous moral problematics; the thematics of innocence coupled with an obsession with figuration of death and hell—are not in fact responses to a dark, abiding signing Africanist presence. It has occurred to me that the very manner by which American literature distinguishes itself as a coherent entity exists because of this unsettled and unsettling population.

She also points out the troubling discrepancy between the fearful and haunted early American literature—Hawthorne, Poe, etc.—and the American dream of a city on a hill.

In addition to offering an allegorical foundation for major themes of American literature such as autonomy, absolute power, and freedom itself, Morrison suggests that this Africanist imagery “provided the staging ground and arena for the elaboration of the quintessential American identity.”

To me, her discussion sheds new light on today’s concerns about cultural appropriation. I am sympathetic to all sides : the writer’s need to tell the story she is passionate about, the importance of not preempting marginalized voices, and the necessity of having more diversity both in our reading and in our writers.

Have you read something or seen a lecture that gave you new insight into the books you’ve read?

Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid

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How could I resist this book? I have long been a Jane Austen fan. Northanger Abbey may be my least favorite of her works, but it is still an enjoyable display of Austin’s satirical wit. I admit, though, that I’ve gotten a little tired of modern adaptations of Austen’s novels. I’m not a purist, but there are many books in my to-be-read pile, and I had been feeling that enough was enough.

What intrigued me here was Val McDermid’s name. I’m also a big fan of her crime novels: meticulously plotted, believable characters, satisfyingly dark and twisty, her mysteries set me puzzling through the clues while thoroughly immersed in the human dramas. Already pondering how Austen’s story could be updated to the modern day, I was further intrigued by the addition of this fabulously dark crime writer to the mix.

In Austen’s story, naïve Catherine Moreland goes with family friends to Bath to get her feet wet in the social season there. She is led astray by her worldly new friend Isabella Thorpe who introduces her to Gothic novels. They quickly become an addiction for Catherine. Isabella’s brother John, believing Catherine to be an heiress, makes a big play for her. At the same time, Catherine has met and become attracted to quiet clergyman Henry Tilney and his sister Eleanor. Thus, she finds herself pulled between the two families while coming to see the world through a Gothic lens.

Austen’s send-up of the then-new craze for Gothic novels is fun and witty, though a bit weak on plot and—at least for me—sufficiently complex characters. I could never quite believe the way Catherine is forgiven at the end of the book.

So I was curious to see how McDermid would translate this story into the modern day. There’s still plenty of naïveté to go around, even today with our sophisticated teens, and young women are still looking for the right man, even if not for the practical reasons common in Austin’s day. No problem there, but what about the rest?

McDermid cleverly sets her story in Edinburgh during Festival time, certainly as much of a social crush as Bath in Austen’s time. Her Cat Moreland is introduced to novels such as Twilight by her new friend Bella Thorpe, and Cat’s romantic fantasies begin to include sexy vampires along with the serious lawyer Henry Tilney. Communication is by text and Facebook rather than letters, though in the four years since this book was published, endlessly posting selfies to FaceBook seems to have waned among the young.

While these equivalencies are fun to enumerate, what’s amazing is the seamless way they are integrated into a story that closely follows the original, while standing just fine on its own. There’s plenty of satirical wit and lots of in-jokes too.

It’s a tour-de-force. Though I started out reading analytically, I quickly became absorbed in the story itself. I found the twists and turns quite satisfying, sufficiently different from Austen’s, while still appropriate for today, to delight me with their ingenuity.

Why would McDermid, a successful crime writer, take on such a project? Most of the writers I know like to challenge themselves. Perhaps they try a different genre or a different technique. They are constantly trying to improve their skills, no matter how successful they already are. Too, I believe that it is the project that terrifies you, the one you aren’t sure you’re up to but believe in your bones that you must write that becomes the most successful. The passion that you bring to it and the way you must dig deeply to rise to the challenge make it your best work.

Kudos to McDermid for a job well done!

Have you read an adaptation of a Jane Austen novel that you thought was particularly successful?

Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier

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Mary Anning lived for her whole short life in Lyme Regis on the south coast of England. Born into a working-class family—her father was a cabinet-maker—Mary started while still a small child helping with the family’s sideline of gathering fossils from the cliffs that stretched along the shore. These were sold to tourists for much-needed income.

As a child, Mary’s claim to local fame was that she had been struck by lightning while only a little over a year old and survived, unlike the woman holding her or the two other children nearby. Chevalier imaginatively uses this incident as a source of much that is different about Mary, such as her remarkable eye for spotting fossils.

Chevalier’s novel is historical fiction, but Anning was a real person who lived during the first half of the 19th century. So was Elizabeth Philpot, a lady of limited means who moved with her sisters to Lyme Regis. While looking for the pretty stones she did not yet realise were fossils, Elizabeth became friends with young Mary even though she was 20 years older.

The story is really about their friendship, a peculiar one not only because of the difference in their ages and circumstances, but because of their shared rejection of the customs of the day. Climbing around on the cliffs digging out fossils and reading scientific treatises about them were not approved activities for women of any class. Mary taught Elizabeth how to recognize fossils in the shale and limestone of the cliffs, while Elizabeth taught her how to read and write and also shared with her the scientific papers that she found.

Gathering fossils was dangerous work because the cliffs were unstable. As the ground crumbled during storms, new fossils were exposed, but the two women were always in danger of being buried by a landslide. It was also dangerous because at the time the very existence of fossils was disputed because they repudiated the prevalent literal understanding of the Bible by suggesting not only that the earth might not have been created in a handful of days, but also that God may have allowed some of his creatures to die out. At that time it was believed that God watched over his creatures and could not have made a mistake or allowed any of them to become extinct.

Completely self-taught, Anning became a significant figure in the history of science. We follow her footsteps as she discovers an ichthyosaur skeleton—she was the first to suggest that it was not a crocodile, but something that must have lived long ago—as well as two complete plesiosaur skeletons and a pterosaur skeleton. She and Elizabeth also find important fish fossils. Elizabeth’s significant contributions later led her nephew to build a museum originally named after who her that later became the Lyme Regis Museum. Part of her collection is in the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Amateur fossil hunters and prominent geologists of the day not only consulted Anning, and but also asked her to lead them on fossil hunting expeditions on the cliffs. Some of the men whom she helped took credit for her, finds but towards the end of her life this misrepresentation was corrected and her accomplishments began to be recognized.

While I’m delighted to have these two foremothers’ stories brought out of obscurity and introduced to a popular audience, I do have some qualms about historical fiction in general. Because so little is known about the details of their lives, there is ample room for a novelist’s imagination.

However, when we are talking about two women who actually lived, I have reservations about taking the liberty of adding to their stories. We can guess at their likely motivations, but the author herself admits that she made up some events that I believe the women would not thank her for. Of course, after we’re dead and have no one to speak for us, we have no control over our own stories. At least Anning has not been featured in a commercial dancing with a vacuum cleaner like Fred Astaire.

Still, Chevalier has done a great deal of research and written an engaging book. She has also done a great service in bringing out the inspiring story of these two women.

Have you recently learned about an area of women’s history that was new to you, perhaps through a book or a film?

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

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This surprising bestseller is set in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie has been temporarily interred. A favorite in the household, 11-year-old Willie contracted typhoid fever and died the very night of a huge ball at the White House.

Saunders was intrigued and moved by accounts that Lincoln in his grief had actually visited the crypt in order to hold the boy’s body.

Bardo refers to an intermediate state between death and reincarnation. All the characters, besides Lincoln and the cemetery’s keeper, are those souls who have not moved on but remain in the cemetery. They do not understand that they are dead; they believe they are “sick”, that their coffins are “sick–boxes”, and that they will at some point return to their interrupted lives. They are shocked and saddened when joined by Willie, not only because he is a remarkable child, but because children usually move on right away.

I didn’t want to read this book. I had read a few reviews of it, so I knew a bit about it and didn’t think that it was a book that I would enjoy. Then my book club chose it.

There were two reasons why I didn’t think I would enjoy it. For one, I don’t like to read stories about the death of children.

Also, I understood that it was experimental fiction. Its format consists of brief quotes followed by the name of the speaker, almost like an inverted screenplay.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy experimental fiction, but I rarely find it as enjoyable as more traditional narratives. Of course, there are exceptions. I was delighted by A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I knew that Saunders’s book is narrated by the dead, like Spoon River Anthology. I have always enjoyed these poems by Edgar Lee Masters; in fact, one of my favorite quotes comes from his Lucinda Matlock. She says, “It takes life to love life.”

Here, I feared that the cacophony of voices would be overwhelming. In fact, though, they flow together very well. The three main narrating souls have distinct voices in the beginning of the book, but soon their voices become quite similar. I assume this was a deliberate choice by the author to make the story read better and not feel jerky.

Other chapters are a collection of excerpts from historical sources, some real and some imaginary, which give us the facts about the ball at the White House, Willie’s death, and the war. Amusingly, many of these accounts conflict with each other. They also reveal a contemporaneous understanding of what was going on in Lincoln’s mind. The year is 1862. The Civil War has been going on for one year, and the casualties are mounting.

While there are a couple of intensely moving moments in this book, I found reading it more of a cerebral exercise. I appreciate the form that Saunders found in which to tell his story and how well he executed it. I also appreciate the subtle and surprisingly powerful ending.

Still, I was surprised that it became such a big bestseller. True, Saunders was already a popular author. And there is a good bit of humor as well as those few profound scenes. It is also surprisingly easy to read, though I wonder how confused I’d have been at the start had I not read those reviews first. If I expected a bit more substance in the novel, then that is my failing rather than the author’s.

Have you read any experimental fiction that you thought was especially successful?

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

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I’ve long been a fan of Krueger’s Cork O’Connor mysteries. Like many such series today, they are graceful and profound enough to qualify as literary fiction. This stand-alone novel, too, while a mystery, is so much more than that.

Frank Drum tells us about the summer of 1961 when he was 16. A bit of a scamp, he is in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood, when we move from innocence to a more complicated knowledge.

He’s often thrown together with his younger brother Jake, partly because he feels he must protect Jake who has a stammer. They are also somewhat isolated from other youngster their age because their father is the Methodist minister in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota, and they both firmly believe in their father’s religion. Their older sister Ariel is a musical prodigy headed to Juilliard the following year.

As the summer begins, Frank and his family are struggling to come to terms with a death that has been ruled an accident but may be something more terrifying. Frank and Jake, exploring the sand flats where they are forbidden to go, encounter a squatter and notice he has a key piece of evidence in that death. Thus we are unsettled right from the beginning, aware of peril, but unsure whom to trust.

Although told from the distance of forty years, we get a strong sense of what it’s like to be 13. Frank pushes his boundaries, struggles with bullies, and fears the tensions within his family. His mother, once a promising musician herself, is a native of New Bremen who thought she was escaping by marrying a lawyer-to-be, only to be thrust back into her stifling hometown as a preacher’s wife. Adding to her discontent is her rejection of any kind of religion.

With the summer’s events, Frank must also grapple with issues of prejudice and race. He must find his own way through the religious quagmire of bad things happening to good people. And, like many teens, he must suffer those moments of recognising you’ve made a terrible mistake and those when you must make a difficult choice.

Part of the pleasure of reading this story is the delicate balance between these coming-of-age struggles and the dangerous tensions that bubble up as more deaths ensue. Another part is the subtle way the past threads through these events, exposing unexpected strains and traumas. These stories from before the story add depth and resonance.

Yet another remarkable aspect is the way not only the characters change over the course of the story, but also the way relationships between the characters transform.

Most of all, for me, after several novels in the last few years with vague or disappointing endings, the conclusion here is deeply satisfying. All the pieces come together. We have gone on a journey with these people, a journey that has left me with a full heart.

What novel have you read recently that engaged you emotionally from start to finish?

My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

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My library puts a slip of paper in books where people who’ve checked out the book can rate it. When I took out this book, I saw that three gave it top marks and one hated it. Me, I loved it.

Obviously, this quiet story is not for everyone. Lucy herself is the narrator, telling us about a time in the 1980s when she was in the hospital for nine weeks and her mother came to stay with her for five days. From the start we wonder what is wrong with her that she must be in the hospital for so long and why this is the first time Lucy has seen her mother in years, since Lucy and William’s marriage in fact.

Over the course of the five days, Lucy’s mother relates gossip from home, mostly of marriages that did not end well. Lucy’s thoughts wander over the years, touching on her brutal childhood when the family’s poverty was so great that they lived in an unheated garage with no running water and she was locked in her father’s truck while her parents were at work. She tells us about her life in New York City with her husband and daughters, though not—she insists—about her marriage.

It’s Lucy’s voice that made me fall in love with this book. Like her mother, whose voice Lucy describes as “shy, but urgent”, Lucy tells us of these things calmly, leaving us to infer the desperation underneath. Telling details—a memory of her father’s hand on the back of her head, hiding a magazine from the doctor for fear it makes her seem “trashy”, her near-envy of people with AIDS because they seem part of a community—reveal what lies beneath her surface calm.

Even the title reflects Lucy’s calm, matter-of-fact tone.

Lucy tells us how happy she is to see her mother and reassures us that she loves her mother, but the two of them shy away from anything too personal. Their relationship is at the core of the book. As in Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle, Lucy’s love for her mother and apparent lack of self-pity make the book glow. She recognises that their love for each is an “imperfect love”, as Sarah Payne says. Payne is an author who, in occasional encounters, gives Lucy advice on writing that become life lessons.

In addition to the voice, what I admire most as a writer is the way Strout releases information. Among the themes of imperfect love and family is the theme of reticence. There is so much that Lucy does not say. Sarah Payne, too, is criticised as a writer who shies away from telling everything, from digging too deeply.

The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is. The seeming randomness actually follows traditional narrative structure.

Also, things are mentioned without explanation, such as Lucy’s fear of snakes or her friend telling her to be ruthless. Then, later, we learn a bit more, and then perhaps another bit. We are never told everything, but we are told enough. As one person in my book club said, every single thing in this book has to be there.

Recently, I was thinking that I had lived in my most recent home for 17 years—which seemed like no time at all—when I was surprised to realise that 17 years was the length of my childhood. When I left for college at 17, I shook off my family and began to create my life, just as Lucy did when she married and left home. Yet those few childhood years exert a power as great as that of all the decades that followed.

In the end, though, what I treasure most in this story is the perception that it’s not so much a matter of forgiving parents, but rather a recognition that the love is there, an imperfect love, but love nonetheless.

Have you read a quiet book that turned out to be unexpectedly powerful?