The Springs of Affection, by Maeve Brennan

Brennan

Maeve Brennan was a staff writer for The New Yorker, and by all accounts a colorful character. In his Introduction, William Maxwell described some of her antics such as hanging her large framed photograph of Colette by Louise Dahl-Wolfe on the wall above his desk, removing it later when he said or did something she didn’t like. One day it was back again. It came and went “like a cloud shadow. I never knew why and thought it would be a poor idea to ask.”

The stories in this book, all quite stunning, are set in Dublin where Brennan grew up. The first set seem to be autobiographical. They are in first person and the characters have the names of Maeve and her family. The home is the rowhouse on a dead-end street in a Dublin suburb where Maeve grew up.

Each recounts some incident—whether small, such as a man coming to the house to sell apples or the delivery of a new sofa, or large, such as a fire in the garage out back or raids by men looking for her father during a time of dissension between those in favor of a Republic and those supporting the Free State—but imbues it with such accuracy and character that it seems to hold a whole lifetime.

These stories remind me of writer and teacher Meg Rosoff advising us writers to look at the incidents that stick in our memory’s colander, those seemingly unimportant bits of the past. Yet there is a reason we remember them, and if we dig deeper we may be surprised by what emerges.

The second section is a series of stories exploring the particulars of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s unhappy marriage. Their only son John has become a priest, leaving Rose bereft. Over the course of the stories, details emerge about the family dynamics and the psychological burdens borne by the couple.

The stories in the third section are also about a marriage, not quite so fraught as the Derdons’ but held in a precarious balance. Martin and Delia Bagot lead mostly independent lives, he working late while she is responsible for the house, garden and two girls. However, the eponymous final story, told through Martin’s twin sister Min after the couples’ deaths, gives us a different slant on their relationship, though not perhaps the one Min intended.

What especially fascinates me about the Derdon and Bagot stories are the narrative scenes. As writers we usually balance narrative, also known as exposition, with dramatic scenes. These scenes usually have action and dialogue and conflict between characters. However, it is possible to write scenes that are all narrative. Usually writers are advised not to include long narrative passages, as they can be boring and slow the story to the point where momentum is completely lost.

However, a narrative scene is different, containing all the drama and emotion of an action scene. C.S. Lakin says, “What makes for great narrative scenes is the character voice.” I agree, but Brennan in these stories also shows the value of burrowing deep into her characters’ hearts and minds. Her astute understanding of their psychology, their fears and dreams, their upbringing and social context makes for stirring reading.

For example, 87-year-old Min is still furious about Martin having married Delia, even though both of them are now dead. She believes that his doing so broke up their family, saying of their mother:

. . . who had sacrificed everything for them and asked in return only that they stick together as a family, and build themselves up, and make a wall around themselves that nobody could see through, let alone climb. What she had in mind was a fort, a fortress, where they could build themselves up in private and strengthen their hold on the earth, because in the long run that is what matters—a firm foothold and a roof over your head. But all that hope ended and all their hard work was mocked when Delia Kelly walked into their lives.

This is telling about something that happened instead of showing it in a scene with action and dialogue. Yet it works, because of the vivid language, the voice—can’t you just hear Min?—and the accuracy and precision of the author’s insight into this character.

As I closed the book, moved by Min’s unconscious revelations about herself and by the two couples and Maeve herself as a child, I found myself thinking about my own childhood. Like Brennan, like all of us I suspect, those early years of family and the house that contained us have almost mythic status in my imagination. I can understand how she wanted to return again and again to that well of inspiration.

Have you read a collection of short stories that you’d recommend? Perhaps they carried you away to a faraway place or gave you a new understanding of human nature? Perhaps they introduced characters whom you can’t seem to forget?

The Lying Game, by Ruth Ware

Lying

More a suspense novel than a mystery, this 2017 novel from Ruth Ware starts with a body turning up by a tidal estuary on the south coast of England. The next day Isa Wilde, living in North London with her husband and six-month-old daughter, receives a text saying simply “I need you.”

To her husband’s baffled dismay, Isa immediately packs up her baby and leaves for the village of Saltern, where 17 years earlier she had briefly attended a boarding school. There she’d become tight friends with Kate, Thea and Fatima, getting up to all kinds of mischief, sneaking cigarettes and alcohol, slipping out at night.

They also played what they called the lying game. The game had many rules, including points for how persuaded the unfortunate recipient was by their lies. That summer the four of them formed a bond strong enough to bring them back all these years later.

Kate, who sent the text, still lives in Saltern, in a ramshackle building called the Tide Mill on the other side of the Reach—the local name for the estuary—from the school. Her father Ambrose had been the art teacher at the school, enabling Kate to board there. His relaxed bohemian ways left the girls free to escape school regularly to make their way across the Reach to the Mill where they let loose as only 15-year-old girls can, swimming and drinking and exploring.

And confronting something that not only could blow the four apart from each other, such that they had not seen each other for 17 years, but was so explosive a secret that fear of it had haunted them all that time.

The book is more psychological suspense than the runaway train of a thriller. I appreciated the insight into the characters, all of whom we encounter through Isa’s eyes. I was fascinated by the changes in the young women. Fatima has become a doctor and begun practicing her faith, disconcerting the others with her hijab and refusal of alcohol. Kate has become an artist like her father, but barely making enough to hold body and soul together. Thea’s intensity and tendency to anorexia have only increased, while Isa has settled happily into marriage, motherhood, and a civil service job. They all have a lot to lose.

As a writer, I appreciated Ware’s sure-footed ability to take the reader in and out of the past without ever leaving us floundering, wondering what time period we were in. Good transitions and textual clues ensured that we always knew which time period we were in.

I also was impressed by her use of setting. The details we encounter through Isa’s eyes not only create vivid images of the places themselves but also add to the atmosphere and underline themes throughout the book. For example, at one point Isa is describing Saltern village and mentions the fishing nets hung on many of the cottages, presumably to add to the village’s appeal as a tourist destination. However the drooping, grey webs of netting make her wonder how anyone could bear to live enclosed by them.

Another example is the Mill itself. Remembered as a lost paradise, it has decayed through years of neglect to the point where it is not only falling apart, but is actually sinking into the sand. It has gotten so bad that during some high tides the electricity shorts out and the footbridge over the millstream to the land beyond is flooded.

Too much? Readers’ tastes vary, but I enjoyed how Ware could take clichés such as a house built on sand, being caught in a spider’s web, or crossing a treacherous bog and make them work, creating an intense atmosphere and increasing the suspense. The twists and turns of the story make the plot exciting, but more importantly reveal new layers of all of the characters, large and small.

What novel of psychological suspense have you read lately that you’d recommend?

The Friend, by Sigrid Nunez

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Nunez’s new novel, winner of the 2018 National Book Award, is a quiet and intelligent story of friendship, love and despair, tackling the questions most of us wrestle with at various times in our lives: Should I change my life? Is it worth going on as I have?

In examining these issues, the narrator addresses her longtime friend, a fellow writer and English professor, who has recently committed suicide. Closer than lovers, with a friendship more lasting than any marriage, the two had known each other for years.

He had been her own teacher once, a man who believed teaching to be essentially an erotic relationship, and in those days charmed his students into falling for him, drawing on his female students for one of his three wives and multiple lovers over the years. But he had grown old. Now physically unattractive, his student conquests no longer loved him, but relished the power of taming their teacher.

The narrator too is appalled by much of the younger generation she is teaching, though for different, more intellectual reasons.

She ranges over a variety of subjects, bringing in literary anecdotes and references—making it a joy for a fellow reader. But every idea she takes up is ultimately related to learning to live with loss. Already isolated by choice—unmarried and most often solitary—she is tempted by her pain to move even further away from the world.

The external problem she faces is her friend’s dog, a Great Dane. Wife Three, the final one, insists that he wanted the narrator to take the dog after his death, even though he’d never mentioned it to her. The narrator, a cat person living in a tiny, rent-controlled, NYC apartment where pets are not allowed, is horrified.

Yet she takes him. And a relationship grows between the two. The dog, renamed Apollo by the dead man, becomes one of the strongest characters in the book. Yet grief looms here as well, for the dog is already close to the end of its brief life span.

Obviously this book will appeal to anyone who has given their heart to an animal companion. For those, like me, who enjoy animal company without necessarily having an intimate relationship with them, will enjoy the intelligent conversation, the insight into the world of writers and of teaching at the college level. And everyone will enjoy the humor that leavens the narrator’s sometimes gloomy subjects.

It is the narrator’s voice that carries this story. In a dry, unsentimental tone and using straight-forward language, she investigates the most dire, emotional problems we face. How are we to live? What makes it worth going on? What do we leave behind?

The only time the tone falters, for me, is when the author briefly plays a bit of a game with the reader. But that aside, this is a remarkable book, unlike anything you’ve likely read before.

Have you read a quiet novel that surprised you with its power?

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

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I’d heard so many good things about Butler’s work, and especially this early (1979) stand-alone novel of hers, and I was not disappointed. I was a little surprised, because it was not the science fiction novel I expected, given that is how it is classified. No matter. I was entranced and changed by the story it actually tells.

Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day woman of color who is mysteriously transported back to a pre-Civil War slave plantation. Not only is Maryland’s Eastern Shore a far distance from her home in Los Angeles, in time as well as miles, but it is a shockingly unfamiliar culture.

She sees a young red-haired boy who is drowning and rescues him. Apparently, she has been drawn back by Rufus’s fear of dying. She continues to move between the past and present, something neither she nor Rufus has conscious control over. Time moves faster in the past, so she encounters Rufus at different ages. Dana’s white husband Kevin also gets drawn back with her at one point, and his experiences highlight how much Dana’s changed status is due to her gender as well as her skin color.

What is astounding in this book is the way Dana comes up against the small and large ways that life is different for her in Rufus’s world. No matter how much I’ve read of histories and novels and slave narratives, no matter how many museums and former plantations I’ve visited, nothing brought home to me the live of a slave the way Dana’s experience does.

Why? Partly of course that’s due to Butler’s extensive research. Even more, it’s due to her vivid writing—the strong characters, the plot that never stops, the high stakes, the familiarity in her use of slave narratives as story structure.

But most of all it’s because Dana is me. The differences in our race and cities mean nothing compared to our common culture. Experiencing the indignities, injustices, and downright torture of that life through Dana’s frame of reference opened my eyes in a new way to the abuses of slavery. Here is a woman who expects to wear pants, be able to read a book and write a letter, speak up for herself and demand justice, even to go where and when she pleases. Deprived of all that, powerless, considered property, something less than human, without even the survival mechanisms other slaves have learned, Dana must find a way to endure her trips back in time.

There are many lessons here for fiction writers. One is the use of voice. Dana’s modern-day narrative voice reinforces the connection with the reader while emphasising how far away she is from the time of slavery. This is starkly apparent when she is forced to put on a slave-voice to protect herself.

Another is not only the importance of research, but how to use it effectively. It is clear that Butler has done her research well, not only into antebellum plantation conditions, but also into slave narratives and historical accounts of slavery. Yet, she employs that research lightly, including details only as appropriate for plot and character. For example, at one point when she’s back in Los Angeles, Dana throws away her books on African-American history because she now sees the flaws and gaps in their depiction of slavery. I expect Butler could have listed texts and quoted examples, but wisely refrained.

Yet another lesson is for fiction writers looking for a new way to write about a common theme. I think of it as the what-if game. What if you took a classic western and put it in a different setting, maybe outer space? You might come up with Firefly or Star Wars. What if you took a classic vampire story and used a different—even implausible—protagonist? You might have Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Twilight. What if you took one of your own experiences and gave the protagonist different characteristics from you (good, bad or both) or a different time period or a different culture? How might that story play out?

Or you can use the tropes of science fiction/fantasy genre to explore modern-day problems by taking them out of the modern day. That is what Margaret Atwood did in her classic The Handmaid’s Tale. And it is how Octavia Butler shows us that, instead of papering over them, we in the U.S. must confront the ugly crimes of our past in order to move forward.

Have you read any of Octavia Butler’s books? What did you think of it?

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss

History

I’ve learned to be wary of books whose covers are emblazoned with their bestseller status and whose initial pages are filled with glowing blurbs. Already cautious, I came close to abandoning this book in the course of the first long chapter. I call it a chapter, but the book’s structure is not so ordinary. The first chunk of print would be a better description.

Here we sink into the consciousness of Leo Gursky, an elderly Jewish man living in a cluttered New York City walkup, who is afraid of dying on a day when nobody sees him. A retired locksmith, he has taken up writing again, a vocation he abandoned sixty years earlier when he fled his village in Poland, just as the Germans rolled in and began gathering up the Jews.

Leo is a sad man, pathetic even, as he deals with physical infirmities and loneliness; his only friend is the peculiar Bruno who lives upstairs. The story Leo starts writing is about the girl named Alma whom he loved back in Poland. The two planned a life together, to start as soon as Leo joined her in New York. However, delayed by the war, by the time he arrives she has given up on him and married someone else.

While the writing is evocative and in places quite lovely, this story and this character did not interest me. Hence, my struggle to keep reading.

But then we branch off into a much more entertaining story about a girl also named Alma, whose ambition is to be able to survive in the wild, as she believes her late father was able to do. She would also like to find someone for her still-grieving mother to love and to persuade her little brother that he is not a lamed vovnik, one of the thirty-six holy men in a given generation, one of whom has the potential to be the Messiah. She tells her story in witty and touching numbered sections, ranging in length from a sentence to a few pages.

Despite Leo’s attempts at writing about his village in Poland in the first section, this seems to be the book that Leo eventually began writing. The two stories weave together, and are joined by a third that is apparently that book Leo wrote back in Poland which he thought had been lost, and then by extracts from a couple of other books.

This complicated structure works like a kaleidoscope, the reader’s understanding shifting with each turn. I was impressed with Krauss’s ability first to imagine such a thing and then to hold it together. I enjoyed puzzling out how all the pieces she was juggling might eventually come together.

Although I admired the structure and the writing, I never felt engaged with the story. Leo as a character didn’t interest me. The girl Alma and her brother were more intriguing, but as—I assumed—figments of Leo’s imagination, they seemed too far removed for me to care what happened to them. Also, questions about the reliability of Leo as a narrator held me back from connecting with the story.

I love the way Kraus uses small, sometimes contradictory, but always memorable and true-to-life details to build her characters. Often she’ll follow a high-flown statement with comic deflation. For example, here is Leo, late for a funeral, trying to catch a bus:

I like to think the world wasn’t ready for me, by maybe the truth is that I wasn’t ready for the world. I’ve always arrived too late for my life. I ran to the bus stop. Or rather, hobbled, hiked up trouser legs, did a little skip-scamper-stop-and-pant, hiked up trouser legs, stepped, dragged, stepped, dragged, etcetera.

I’m glad I finished this book. I enjoyed the surprises and the kaleidoscope of reversals. I’d hesitate to recommend it, though, except to those who are willing to forego a story for a dazzling display of writerly prowess.

Do blurbs—the short quotations from other writers or reviewers on a book’s cover or first few pages praising the book—help you select a book to read?

East of the Mountains, by David Guterson

mountains

In this second novel from Guterson, Ben Givens is packing for a hunting trip. A 73-year-old retired heart surgeon, he has recently lost his wife and been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. He stopped hunting after his experiences as a young man in WWII, but now has decided to take one last trip with his two dogs. Knowing what is coming for him, what he really intends to do is to stage an accident that will take his life.

He chooses the area around Wenatchee, Washington, just over the mountains from his home in Seattle. It’s the area where he grew up, hunting with his father and working in their apple orchards, and he knows he can find a remote place where his body won’t be found for a while. The two dogs he’ll set free to manage as best they can in the wild.

I started this book soon after it came out in 1999. I’d enjoyed Snow Falling on Cedars and looked forward to this book. However, I rather quickly got bored and abandoned it.

Almost twenty years later, I thought I’d give it another try. Again I found myself laying it aside. Finally, though, I persisted and made it to the end, curious to figure out why I wasn’t more interested in the story.

One reason is that I just didn’t believe in the protagonist. He wasn’t like any surgeon I ever knew and I’ve known a few. In fact, his life as a surgeon seemed to disappear after its first mention and not really come back until the end of the book. He could have been anyone: a cowboy, a marine, a taxi driver.

In fact, he seemed to be no one; I didn’t get much sense of him as a person. I had even less sense of the other, minor characters.

Another reason is the huge chunks of backstory. After the first 60 pages we go off into a 40-page flashback into his childhood. Then after another 60 pages we go off into another 40-page flashback into his war experience. As a result what story there is seems to stop dead.

And that’s the third reason I was tempted to put the book aside. The story lacks tension. There’s not much suspense. A couple of bad things befall Givens, but he’s planning to kill himself anyway, so it’s hard to care.

On the plus side, Guterson’s descriptions of the land along the Columbia River are gorgeous. One of the great joys of reading is being transported to a distant place. The author’s evocation of place kept me reading.

I rather liked a part near the end when Givens actually has to interact with people. But then a deus ex machina suddenly lifts him out of the problems he’s gotten himself into, letting what little tension had built to evaporate.

A lot of people liked this book, and there were certainly parts I enjoyed. However, for me it was mostly a good lesson on crafting a page-turner.

Have you read a novel where the setting was more interesting than the characters? That is not necessarily a bad thing!

Best books I read in 2018

Best books I read in 2018

As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the ten best books I read in 2018. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.

1. Reservoir 13, by Jon McGregor
This unusual and remarkable book 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. This is not a book to rush through. It is a book to savor.

2. Waking, by Eva Figes
It’s quite short, only 88 pages, but don’t be deceived. There’s a lifetime packed into this stunning novel. Each of the seven chapters takes us into the thoughts of our unnamed narrator at a different point in her life, from childhood to the edge of death.

3. Priest Turns Therapist Treats Fear of God, by Tony Hoagland
In crafting his poems Tony Hoagland, who passed away this year, brings together humor and tenderness, wit and emotion, gentle satire and surprising insight. Using the things of this world, he invites us to be present in our lives and appreciate each moment. The poems in this, his final book, often moved me to tears.

4. Collected Poems, by Jane Kenyon
For me, reading Jane Kenyon’s poems for the first time has been like falling in love, that moment when you meet someone who seems to be your soulmate, who speaks your language, who knows what you have been through.

5. My Beloved World, by Sonia Sotomayor
This memoir by the Supreme Court justice is remarkably well-crafted and imbued with a generous spirit.

6. A Muriel Rukeyser Reader, ed. by Jan Heller Levi
In The Life of Poetry, Rukeyser talks of the influence of Melville and Whitman, one “the poet of outrage”, the other “the poet of possibility”, and we can see both of these influences in her poems. She also speaks of different sorts of unity and embraces the possibility of our coming together, of our finally bringing an end to war.

7. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, by Walter Mosley
With this novel, Mosley takes us into the mind of ninety-one-year-old Ptolemy Grey, a mind that is fraying at the edges. It is one of the most moving portrayals of aging that I’ve read. Mosley’s novels are always entertaining, but for me as a writer they are also a masterclass in writing craft.

8. [Asian Figures], by W.S. Merwin
Merwin, a prolific and popular poet, a former poet laureate, chose to translate these proverbs from various Asian cultures. He side-steps the thorny question of whether they are poetry, and instead concentrates instead on what they share: brevity, self-containment, and “urge to finality of utterance”. What they also share is humor, wit, and true wisdom.

9. My Name Is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout
This quiet story is not for everyone, but I fell in love with Lucy’s voice. 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. The story seems to ramble haphazardly, but when I went back and looked more closely, I could see how well crafted it is.

10. How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff
Fifteen-year-old Daisy arrives in England, sent by her father and new stepmother to visit her aunt, only to find herself embroiled in an invasion. Daisy’s voice is the best thing about the book—surly, smart, funny and vulnerable. We are all flawed beings; Daisy is no different, yet in rising to the occasion she finds an unexpected heroism. I felt privileged to spend these pages with her.

What were the best books you read last year?

Awards 40, Nimrod International Journal

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A literary magazine from the University of Tulsa, Nimrod sponsors several writing contests. This issue (Volume 62, Number 1, Fall/Winter 2018) features the winners of the Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry and the Katharine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction. Unusually for such magazines, this issue also includes the work of those who won second prize, finalists, semi-finalists and those who received honorable mention. Also unusual is that most of the poets have several poems, not just a single winning poem.

I’m mightily impressed with this volume. Overall, the quality of the work is high, and several of the stories and poems are outstanding. For example, finalist Susan Nguyen’s poetry carries surprising images and brings music to writing of dreams, language and history.

I particularly like finalist Mimi Lok’s story “Last of Her Name”. The tale moves effortlessly through time, carrying the past into the present, following a daughter and her mother as they navigate the dangers of being a woman in our sometimes violent world.

Another story I liked is finalist Ellen Furman’s “Things” in which the narrator Kat, about to move cross-country is persuaded to leave her desk, a family piece with great sentimental value, with a stranger. Kate becomes fascinated by Anya, “the keeper of things”, a Russian émigré whose tract home is crowded with things she is storing for others as well as her own acquisitions. What secrets do we carry? What role do things play in our lives?

Several poets included the words of others in their poems, adding a context to their personal imagery that moved me deeply. For example, first prize winner Emma DePanise wrote of Anna Bertha Ludwig. Semi-finalist Lee Sharkey brought together writings of May Stevens, Rosa Luxemburg and Virginia Woolf to stunning effect.

Submitting to literary contests has its pros and cons. You are guaranteed that someone will at least look at your work. There may be a cash prize as well as publication. On the downside, fees to enter the contest add up quickly.

The best strategy is to research magazines to see which ones publish work similar to yours. Before the internet, that was an expensive proposition, but these days you can usually read a sampling online.

Another strategy is to find a ranking of literary magazines to prioritise your submissions. For example, Cliff Garstang’s methodology for ranking magazines is based on how often they publish work that wins Pushcart Prizes.

Something I look for is how often magazines publish women, people of color, and writers of different ethnicities. The Vida count is an invaluable resource here.

A final strategy I employ is that when I come across a story or poem by someone whose work seems similar to mine is to check their author biographies to see where else they have been published.

All this research comes on top of the actual writing and revising (and revising and revising). Yet it becomes a joy when I come across a collection such as this one.

Do you read any literary magazines? Which ones?

Lisette’s List, by Susan Vreeland

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In 1937, young Lisette Roux and her husband André leave their beloved Paris and move to the south of France, to the small Provençal village of Roussillon to care for André’s grandfather Pascal.

Once an ochre miner, Pascal loved paintings whose pigments used his ochre. By exchanging his homemade frames for paintings by destitute artists, Pascal had acquired eight works of art. These paintings have grown in value as the fame of the artists grew, but their worth is beyond money to Pascal. He wants to be sure that André and Lisette understand their true worth and will protect them when he himself is gone.

The story is from Lisette’s point of view, first her misery at leaving Paris and the art world she is just beginning to move into, hoping for a job at a gallery, then her growing love for Pascal and Roussillon. She keeps track of her vows and promises to herself of what she will do in her lifetime.

All too soon, their life in Provence is overtaken by World War II. André hides the paintings before going off to fight, leaving Lisette to manage without his income. When the Germans occupy Roussillon, they are determined to find Pascal’s paintings.

In this final book from the author of books such as Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia, we have the combination of historical fiction and a deep appreciation of art that we’ve come to expect from Vreeland. Along with Lisette, we are introduced to artists such as Pissaro, Cezanne and Picasso. The descriptions of the paintings and of Provence itself are luscious.

So why did I grow a little bored towards the middle of the story? Partly it was because these artists were not new to me. Partly it was because Lisette, the girl from Paris, seemed to accomplish new things without any trouble at all. Acquire and learn to care for a goat and chicken? No problem. Figure out how to make cheese and candies good enough to sell? Child’s play. She does face some challenges with the Germans and a man in town, it’s true. But I had a bigger problem with the book.

What we expect in a story is a protagonist with an overwhelming need or goal who faces obstacles to achieving what she’s set out to do. We expect there to be an external journey as she confronts these obstacles, as well as an internal journey as she learns more about herself and changes as a result of her inner and outer conflicts. We expect the stakes to be high for both.

The problem for me was that while Lisette certainly had an eventful outer journey, one with high stakes, she didn’t have much of an inner journey. She does have those vows and promises; she does want to be part of the art world, but it all seems rather vague. The stakes are low or non-existent for her inner journey. She doesn’t change by the end of the book. After eleven years, she’s still the same naïve young woman who came to Roussillon.

However, I’m glad I read the book, if only for the descriptions of life in Roussillon and of how the paintings affected Lisette and others. I’m grateful for the opportunity to think about the uses of art in our day-to-day lives, outside of museums and galleries.

What novel about art and artists have you enjoyed?

Hawke’s Discovery, by Mark Willen

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Last week I described Erica Bauermeister’s The School of Essential Ingredients, as a restorative read, much needed after a series of books with unpleasant and untrustworthy protagonists. This week I’ve struck gold again.

Jonas Hawke, a retired lawyer in Beacon Junction, Vermont, finds himself in a moral and ethical dilemma when his son Nathan, editor of the local paper, begins investigating one of Jonas’s old cases. Nathan is intrigued by the possibility of a coverup involving the leading contender for governor in the upcoming election. A big scoop like that could lead to a job offer from a large city paper, something Nathan has been seeking for a while.

However, Jonas’s client confidentiality severely limits how far he can go in answering Nathan’s questions, much to his son’s frustration. Nathan points out Jonas’s responsibility to his fellow citizens: what if Martha Bennett wins the gubernatorial election and then is indicted for obstruction of justice?

This is just the sort of story I needed right now. I love to see ordinary people with a strong sense of integrity navigate the tricky waters of an ethical dilemma. Nathan and Jonas are not the only ones in this story with competing personal and professional responsibilities.

The mystery of what happened in that long-ago case and the various interpersonal conflicts provide tension, but the real suspense is about the characters. What course will they choose? What will the outcome be?

What I like most about this book is its subtlety. All of the characters mean well. They want to do the right thing, if they could only be sure what that is. They seem like people I know. You don’t need a villain in a story like this. We are our own worst antagonists, drifting in the dark without a map.

I recently participated in a book dissection of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. My fellow authors and I couldn’t understand why it became such a big bestseller. There were things we appreciated: a quirky and charming cast of characters and an unusual real-life setting, for example. There were things we didn’t like: such as the misleading title and the epistolary format that made all the action happen off-stage.

What we finally concluded was that it was the heart of the book that made it appeal to so many people. To quote from John J. Kelley’s summary of our discussion, while “the novel never shies away from the tragedies of life” it has “an enduring optimism that many in the group found refreshing in these uncertain times. It was an unexpected charm that surprised many of us.”

Mark Willen’s novel has the same sort of heart. While exploring the murky regions where integrity is put to the test and competing responsibilities rend us, Hawke’s Discovery gives us characters who despite their flaws are essentially good. If you’re suffering from too many stories of sociopaths, serial killers and rapists, pick up this novel. It will refresh you with its enduring optimism.

What books have you read that feature characters who seem like people you know?

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