NORA WEBSTER

In his latest novel, Colm Toibin drops us into the bubbling anxieties of a recently widowed Irish woman with four children. Nora Webster is struggling with money worries, her boys’ school and psychological problems, her son’s stammer, his preoccupation with photography, and his brother’s antagonism, her daughters’ dating and political activism, and her ambivalence about her family and neighbors’ opinions of her. Community gossip, the ever-present lens of Catholicism, the political strife of unrest, and the deep grief of losing her husband are the beating heart of her tension, as she sells a summer cottage and reluctantly returns to a job she hated in the past. Gradually she allows herself some comfort and enjoyment in the guilty pleasure of listening to music and singing.

Talk about a “rich interior life,” this woman monitors her every thought and impulse. She examines her notion of what others – people she has known her whole life- will think about everything she and her children do or plan to do. At the same time, she is defiant and dismissive of their reactions. Toibin seeds the story with a keen sense of time and place and is adept at the subtle ways people slant their words to make themselves known.

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THE VACATIONERS

We all have family vacation or holiday stories- many with enhanced memories, amusement, hilarity, or regret.  The Vacationers by Emma Straub invites the reader along to a family vacation in Mallorca. For much of the novel, the narrator is the teenage daughter – the only uncoupled person on the trip. The three couples – parents, son & girlfriend, and gay best friends- are each working through a crisis in relationship. Planning to lose her virginity is the concern of the teen, whose handsome Spanish tutor  seems a perfect prospect.

This is a fast read with yummy food descriptions, scenic Mallorcan notes, and characters who reflect different cultural backgrounds. The characters are well-drawn and memorable, but I like a richer interior life in my fictional characters- especially those in the midst of life changes.

If you liked Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead, you will appreciate The Vacationers.

BACK & FORTH TO THE FUTURE

Ben Lerner‘s new novel 10:04 is a giant ball of string. Pull a dangling piece of it and a narrative starts to emerge, until it goes no further. Try another loose end…and find yourself starting over. Same story? Same story disguised as another story? Different story with same characters? Same characters from a different perspective? Back and forth it goes..with the narratives tangled up in there someplace. Will the narrator and his friend conceive a child? Will New York disappear beneath the growing waters of ever larger storms? Will the narrator get his novel written? Published?

What’s with 10:04? Remember the clock in Back to the Future? The movie is one of the threads that keeps snagging , as you try to unravel this interesting, frustrating, inventive, slow, complicated book, which Lerner says is “…on the very edge of fiction.”

A treat for the patient, tolerant reader. Frustration for those who like their strings without tangles.

 

FLORENCE GORDON

Seventy-five year old, feminist icon Florence Gordon is the blazing star at the center of her universe in Brian Morton’s new novel. She uses her keen wit, fierce independence, and bad manners to avoid intimacy. Her closest satellites are her family, all engaged in an intellectual dance with the matriarch. Her granddaughter is allowed occasional, quick  glimpses of vulnerability, but son, daughter-in-law, and ex-husband are firmly excluded. Friends , too. The story starts with a surprise birthday  party for her from which Florence departs in disgust after a few minutes.

The ex-husband is a failed writer and whiny narcissist. The daughter-in-law, a therapist,  worships Florence in a way that garners constant disdain from her idol. The son has abandoned intellectual Manhattan for life as police officer in Seattle. The granddaughter shares the acuity of her grandmother, but is working through the usual teenage challenges of relationships and lifestyle choices.

Morton writes in short chapters and varies the points of view among the characters, but does so with the skill that avoids the choppiness you might expect. The arc of the feminist movement is reflected in Florence’s past celebrity and her fading popularity… and also in the discoveries the granddaughter makes about her grandmother’s past.

I liked this book…including the unresolved conflicts in the lives of the characters. Instead of an awkward non-ending, this one seemed the natural unfolding of this particular universe.

THE REMEDY FOR LOVE

A classic “boy meets girl” story, with intriguing twists. Author Bill Roorbach plants the seeds of love in a truly terrifying setting in his latest novel. The “boy” is a young, married, smalltown, Maine lawyer. The “girl” is a younger, homeless, wary, volatile mess. They meet at a grocery checkout, where she cannot pay for her purchases and the idealistic Galahad steps in. A snow storm is predicted,so he follows her to her squat- a rough cabin by a river. Reluctant to leave her alone there and trying to “do the right thing,” the man misjudges the storm and gets trapped in the creaky cabin. No phone, no electricity, no plumbing, no straight answers…just more and more snow, until the cold cabin is surrounded by roof- high drifts.  Intimacy is not an option; it’s the only possibility. And it’s a bumpy road,as the two bicker while forced to cooperate in order to survive. Gradually they learn the truth about each other and recognize some truths about themselves. The groaning cabin ready to collapse, the packed snow, the hypothermia, the sexual tension, the creative meals from random foods…Roorbach’s descriptions carry you right into the horrifying predicament.

Publication date is October 14. THE REMEDY FOR LOVE is on order at the Westport Library.