Either/Or by Elif Batuman

This sequel needs a sequel.

“Was this the decisive moment of my life? It felt as if the gap that had dogged me all my days was knitting together before my eyes—so that, from this point on, my life would be as coherent and meaningful as my favorite books. At the same time, I had a powerful sense of having escaped something: of having finally stepped outside the script.”

In Either/Or we are reunited with Selin as she continues to navigate the trials and tribulations of adulthood. Now a sophomore student at Harvard, Selin has plenty to keep her occupied: her studies inspire her to question the choices she and others have made, the direction of her life, the meaning of love, sex, and connection, the limitations of language, and, of course, her relationship with Ivan, the Hungarian student whose mind remains to Selin, and by extension us, as unreadable as ever. Did she care for her at all?

There was something abstract and gentle about the experience of being ignored—a feeling of being spared, a known impossibility of anything happening—that was consonant with my understanding of love.

Selin’s propensity for long asides is as present as ever and I loved losing myself in her inner monologue. Her long acts of introspections do often come across as navel-gazing (curiously enough the narrative itself mentions navel-gazing), but I never felt bored or annoyed by it. If anything, Selin’s solipsistic inclination for self-interrogation made her all the more realistic. That she refers to books, music, films, and authors to make sense of herself and others results in a deeply intratextual narrative that will definitely appeal to literary students. While Selin isn’t wholly enamoured by academia, we can see how her studies and the books she reads inform the way she understands her world and those who populate it. She often draws parallels between her own life and those of historical and fictional figures. Some of the authors/artists/etc. she mentions include: Kazuo Ishiguro, Fiona Apple, Charles Baudelaire, Pushkin, Shakespeare, André Breton, and of course, Soren Kierkegaard’s Either/Or.

“There was something about crying so much, the way it made my body so limp and hot and shuddering, that made me feel closer to sex. Maybe there was a line where sex and total sadness touched—one of those surprising borders that turned out to exist, like the one between Italy and Slovenia. Music, too, was adjacent. It was like Trieste, which was Italian and Slovenian and also somehow Austrian.”

Of course, at times these books and figures only add further confusion, so Selin is unsure whether she’s idealizing herself and others so that her life can resemble those she encounters in fiction. More often than not knowledge fails her, so she’s unable to decipher not only the motivations of others but her own true feelings.
Her writerly aspirations too preoccupy her and so do the changes that come about in her life. Selin’s intense friendship and rivalry with ​​Svetlana is threatened when the latter finds a boyfriend. Her roommates too have plenty of things that keep them occupied so Selin finds herself going to parties where she meets less than ideal men. Yet even as Selin forms sexual relationships with them, she longs for Ivan and obsesses over what his infrequent emails leave unsaid.

“It seemed to me that the elements whirling around me in my own life were also somehow held in place by Ivan’s absence, or were there because of him—to counterbalance a void.”

Either/Or shares the same structure with The Idiot so we follow Selin month by month during her academic year before tagging alongside her as she once again goes abroad for the summer. In Turkey she finds herself forming unexpected connections but remains somewhat remote to them.

Sardonic and adroit Either/Or makes for a fantastic read. While Selin does change over the course of her sophomore year, she also remains very much herself. She can be reserved and slightly baffling at times, and yet she’s also capable of making some very insightful or relatable comments. She’s intelligent, somewhat naive, and has a penchant for overthinking and obsessing over minor things. Her deadpan sense of humor and little idiosyncrasies make her character really pop out of the page. I could definitely relate to her many many uncertainties, as well as her fixation with understanding the person who never seemed to reciprocate her feelings.

The one that started “Days like this, I don’t know what to do with myself” made me feel certain that I had spent my whole life not knowing what to do with myself—all day, and all night. “I wander the halls . . .” That was exactly it: not the streets, like a flâneur, but the halls. Oh, I knew just which halls.

As I mentioned already over the course of her second year at Harvard Selin grows into a more self-assured person while also remaining strangely static. Her mental meanderings often included reflections on things such as desirability, belonging, love, heartbreak, self-fulfilment, choice & chance, and I found her perspective on these things deeply compelling. At times her mind is preoccupied with mundane thoughts, at times she loses herself in philosophical and existentialist questions about human nature.
Batuman’s inclusion of the minutiae of her protagonist’s life (such as inserting a tampon: “I tried again to put in a tampon. ABSOLUTELY NO FUCKING WAY.”) made Selin’s reality at Harvard all the more vivid. I could easily envision the different environments she occupies, as well as the people who inhabit those places. This combined with the mumblecore dialogues and Selin’s recursive inner monologue, which borders on being a stream of consciousness, give Either/Or quality of hyperrealism. That is, even when confronted with moments of surreality or scenes of a comedic nature, I believed completely in what I was reading. A sense of 90s nostalgia permeates her story which adds to the narrative’s overall atmosphere and aesthetic.

“It was the golden time of year. Every day the leaves grew brighter, the air sharper, the grass more brilliant. The sunsets seemed to expand and melt and stretch for hours, and the brick façades glowed pink, and everything blue got bluer. How many perfect autumns did a person get? Why did I seem always to be in the wrong place, listening to the wrong music?”

I loved this novel so thoroughly that I was sad to reach its inevitable conclusion. I hope with all my heart that Batuman will write a third instalment where we will follow Selin during her third year at Harvard.
If you enjoyed The Idiot chances us you will, like me, love this even more (perhaps because batuman is expanding on the ‘universe’ she already established). If you are a fan of the young-alienated-women subgenre you should definitely consider picking these series up.

My eternal gratitude to the publisher for providing me with an arc.

my rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden

“I wanted to be the diametric opposite of who I was; am. To get gone.”

T Kira Madden’s bold and unsparing storytelling makes for a brutal yet ultimately kaleidoscopic coming of age. This is easily one of the best memoirs I’ve read this year. Madden’s memoir makes for a bittersweet read, one that I look forward to revisiting again.

“Did I want to die? Not really, no. I wanted the beauty of the doomed. Missing girls are never forgotten, I thought, so long as they don’t show up dead. So long as they stay missing.”

The chapters within this memoir have an almost episodic quality to them as they transport us to a specific time and or period of Madden’s childhood and later on teenage years. I appreciated the often unresolved nature of these chapters, as Madden doesn’t try to extract moral lessons from her experiences growing ups. During the very first chapter, we understand just how unconventional Madden’s upbringing was. Both of her parents struggled with substance addictions and were possibly involved in something shady. While her parents had plenty of money to spare their parenting style leaves a lot to be desired. Their unstable relationship too sometimes seemed to take priority over Madden’s wellbeing. Madden paints an unflattering picture of herself as a child, as she seemed to have adopted a horse-girl persona that made other children tease or avoid her. Also, growing up biracial in the nineties and Y2K came with a whole lot of racism, bullying, and confusion. Madden grew up in Boca Raton, Florida, a white-majority city. While her mother tethers her to her Chinese Hawaiian heritage, Madden is often made to feel other. Her family situation also makes her feel somewhat separate from her peers. But alongside this pain (over her loneliness, her parents’ addictions and toxicity), Madden’s gritty humor shines through, reminding me at times of other media focused on dysfunctional families (such as Shameless). Madden’s recollections of her past and her childhood are incredibly vivid, so much so that I could picture with ease the scenes which she was describing. At times this resulted in me feeling quite uncomfortable given the nature of what was happening (at one point madden decides to remove one of her ). Also, there was quite a lot of second-hand embarrassment which is rather expected given that Madden details those awkward years of transition between childhood and adulthood. Adolescence is hell. Seriously. Madden’s meditations on her changing body were certainly relatable. Madden’s observations on girlhood are piercingly clear. While what Madden is writing about is clearly deeply personal, readers can easily identify themselves with her. Madden’s recollects her first sexual experiences as well as the confusing feelings brought about by her own desire. Madden also details how she was sexually assaulted with unflinching clarity. Her longing to belong, to be loved, to be herself, well, it broke my heart. While she does forge friendships with other ‘fatherless’ girls, they also seem to take advantage of Madden (here i was reminded of the movie Thirteen).

“Sometimes I miss them most when we’re all together, when we’re already looking back at the moment, wondering how it will ossify with time, how much more we will know and unknow about each other.”

Madden’s shifting relationship to her sexuality certainly struck a chord with me. I loved the way she articulates that knowing-but-not-knowing. It was distressing to read of how misattribution leads her to confuse fear with love and of the shame she feels over her sexual desires. Madden is also frank when it comes to portraying the difficulties and intricacies of girlhood. From the all-consuming friendships to the desperate need to be seen as older, mature, adult.
In revisiting her childhood and adolescence we inevitably gain a picture of Madden’s rocky home-life. Her parents’ volatile relationship and their struggles with addiction weigh on Madden. But, rather than just reducing her parents to their addictions, Madden makes sure that we see their virtues alongside their vices. While the individuals that emerge are certainly not perfect, they come across as real people. They make mistakes, they fall into bad habits, and their personal crises and dramas often cause them to lose sight of Madden. However, we also see just how deeply they love her, even if their way of expressing this love is somewhat eccentric.
Within this memoir Madden explores her shifting identity growing up, letting us in on some pivotal moments in her childhood and teens. In doing so Madden examines the way American society treats young girls and their sexuality, the many ways in which girls are over-sexualised, the way porn normalizes abuse, and the invisibility and fetishization experienced by Asian American women. Additionally, Madden tackles grief, trauma, belonging, and queerness, in a frank yet poignant way. Her prose is truly illuminating, and I was captivated by her voice within the very first few sentences.
As the daughter of an addict myself this memoir certainly resonated a lot with me.

“These hushed years. These secrets of the body. To whom did they belong first? I want to find where it began and say, I’m here now, listening. I want to reach through the years and tell the women I’ve been lonely.”

This memoir was a real banger. While Madden is not afraid to discuss serious and or ‘uncomfortable’ topics, her writing is so compelling that I found myself tearing through this. Sad, funny, and sharp, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls is a lyrical and hard-hitting memoir. I would definitely recommend this to fans of coming-of-ages such as Monkey Beach and hard-hitting memoirs such as Dog Flowers and Crying in H Mart.

my rating: ★★★★☆

Skim by Mariko Tamaki

Who knew that I would come across something that would make me feel nostalgia for the mid-2000s? Skim is a compelling coming-of-age story that is bound to make you feel nostalgic for the mid-2000s (even if you, like me, didn’t strictly ‘come of age’ in that time). Skim captures the angst, confusion, heartache, and loneliness experienced by its titular character with empathy and insight. Kimberly Keiko Cameron, who goes by the nickname of ‘Skim’, is an aspiring Wiccan goth enrolled at a private girls school. She has a best friend who is very much vocal about her dislike and contempt for the ‘popular’ girls or anything she deems mainstream. When Katie Matthews, one of said popular girls, is dumped by her boyfriend who then goes on to commit suicide, well, the school is thrown into chaos. Some students are very much into performing their grief, exaggerating their connection to the boy and the impact that his death has had on them. Others cluster around Katie, their attempts at comforting her bordering on the oppressive. The staff is made newly aware of the importance of their students’ mental health and identify Skim, a quiet Goth, as someone to keep their eye on. Skim herself sinks further into depression as her only friend becomes increasingly toxic. When Skim develops an infatuation with one of her teachers, well, things get even more complicated for her.
I liked how this graphic novel avoids the usual teen coming-of-age tropes. Skim may be a bit of an outsider but, as we see, the social hierarchies within her school aren’t wholly inflexible (not all of the popular girls hate her or are portrayed as boy-crazed & vapid). Additionally, just because you aren’t part of the popular clique, does not mean you are necessarily a nice person (take Skim’s BFF for example). At times you can grow apart from a friend without any real ‘reason’. Much of the story reads like a slice-of-live dealing with suicide, depression, alternative culture, sexuality, and first love. The narrative never felt moralistic or contrived and I loved the pacing of the story. Skim was a likeable and relatable character who is dealing with a lot of different emotions and can’t quite make sense of what she wants or who she wants to be.
In addition to loving Mariko Tamaki’s storytelling, I adored Jillian Tamaki’s illustrations. Her style has a sketchy edge to it that goes hand in hand with Mariko’s narrative.

I loved how at the ending two characters come together and it is left open to interpretation whether their relationship is platonic or romantic. I did wish for a slightly longer conclusion, but then again, that just may be because I did not want to leave Skim and her world behind. The teacher-student relationship could also have been addressed a bit more. Still, these are minor things and I would happily read this graphic novel again & again.

my rating: ★★★★☆

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Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

Sweet Days of Discipline is a slim dagger of a novel.

Written in a prose so sharp it will cut you, Sweet Days of Discipline is a work of startling and enigmatic beauty, a study in contradictions: order and chaos, sublimity and abjection, clarity and obfuscation, illusion and reality.

Fleur Jaeggy is in absolute command of her craft so that not a word is wasted or out-of-place. Jaeggy exercises formidable control over her language, which is restrained to the point of severity. By turns glacial and melancholic, Jaeggy’s epigrammatic style is dauntingly ascetic. Yet, her direct and crisp prose belies the complexity of her subject. I struggle to pinpoint what this book is even about. Our narrator is consumed by desire but the way she expresses and articulates said desire is certainly atypical. Even upon a second reading, I find myself enthralled by her mysterious and perplexing relationship with Frédérique. Ultimately, it is the obscure nature of their bond that makes me all the more eager to revisit this novel once more.

Our unnamed narrator’s recounting of her schooldays is pervaded by a dream-like quality. Torpor seems to reign supreme at Bausler Institut, an all-girls boarding school in the Appenzell. While the girls’ days are in fact dictated by routine, a sense of idleness prevails. Our narrator, who has spent most of her youth in boarding school, coldly observes the people around her. Her detachment and contempt towards her peers and the rarefied world she’s part of perfectly complement the staccato rhythm of Jaeggy’s prose. When Frédérique is enrolled in her school, she finds herself captivated by her. Her infatuation with Frédérique however doesn’t lead to happiness. Our narrator wants to best Frédérique, to ‘conquer’ her. She is both in awe and jealous of Frédérique’s apathy towards the students, the teachers, and their surroundings. The two eventually begin spending time together but our narrator cannot or is unwilling to express her feelings.
What follows is a taut tale of juxtaposition. The orderly world of the school is contrasted with the inner turmoil of youth. The narrator’s clipped commentary is at once hyperreal and unearthly. While the narrator does try to control her feelings, she’s at times overcome by their sheer intensity. Her love for Frédérique is also inexorably entwined with hatred, as she finds the idea of being bested, of being under anyone’s thumb, unbearable. Our narrator is unforgiving in her detailed recollection, her harshness and cruelty did at times take me by surprise. Yet, her longing for Frédérique and her unwillingness to bend for that love made her into a compelling character. As the narrative progresses she and Frédérique begin to lose sight of one another, and as adolescence gives way to adulthood one of them spirals out of control.
The English translation is superb. I’ve read this both in the original Italian and in English and I have to say that I don’t prefer one over the other. If anything Tim Parks, the translator, got rid of some rather outdated and insensitive terms in the original. The prose in the Italian version is also, to my ears at least, even more, stringent and stark than its English counterpart (maybe this is due to a combination of the slightly old-fashioned italian + my being so used to reading in english that books in italian will inevitably make for a more exacting reading experience).

Sweet Days of Discipline makes for a lethal read. Jaeggy’s austere prose is a study in perfectionism. Yet, despite her unyielding language and her aloof, occasionally menacing, narrator, Sweet Days of Discipline is by no means a boring or emotionless read. The intensity of our narrator’s, often unexpressed, feelings and desires result in a thrilling and evocative read.

my rating: ★★★★★

Asleep by Banana Yoshimoto

“That feeling of security, that sweetness, that pain, that gentleness. I felt sure that every time I saw the green of the trees in my garden awash in light from the street, I’d be struck by a sudden flicker of remembrance—the tail of that soft melody—and I’d chase along behind it, as if sniffing my way forward in pursuit of a pleasant scent.”

There is something about Banana Yoshimoto’s storytelling that I find really comforting.
Whenever I am in a reading slump, or simply unsure of what to read next, I find myself turning to Yoshimoto. Having read 10 of her works, I have grown familiar with her style, themes, and tone. I can see why some may find her stories uneventful or frustratingly dreamy, but I find her distinctive yet simple prose and her naive characters to be reassuring. Asleep, alongside Kitchen, is probably one of my favourites by her. This collection contains three stories, each one centred on a young woman navigating the death of a loved one. Yoshimoto’s characters seem to exist in a liminal space between wakefulness and sleep, their grief, sadness, and melancholia tinge the way they view and interact with the rest of the world.

While these narratives explore death and loss, they are marked by a light and peaceful tone. I was captivated by the protagonist’s winning voices and the Yoshimoto-esque way they perceive themselves and those around them. I loved the first two stories, ‘Night & Night’s Travelers’ and ‘Love Songs’. The former is narrated by Shibami, a young woman who is grieving the recent death of her brother. The brother was involved in a love triangle of sorts, and we see how each woman has been affected by his death. The latter story too seems to revolve around a love triangle in which two women vie for the attention of the same man. We soon realise that the bond between these women runs much deeper. When one of them dies the other seeks to understand the true nature of her feelings for her. ‘Asleep’, the final story in the collection, also presents us with a ‘triangle’, but I found the dynamics here to be slightly less compelling.

Yoshimoto’s meditations on love and death struck me both for their simplicity and their originality. She maintains this perfect balance between realism and surrealism, which results in a fittingly dreamy reading experience. I was lulled by the gentle pacing of her stories. Her storytelling strikes me as particularly suited to the summer season. If you are a fan of Yoshimoto I would definitely recommend this.

my rating: ★★★½

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Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

“My mother had not believed in friendships among women. She said women weren’t to be trusted. Keep your arm out, she said. And keep women a whole other hand away from the farthest tips of your fingernails. She told me to keep my nails long.”

Another Brooklyn is short yet vibrant novella. August, a Black woman in her thirties, looks back to her girlhood in the 1970s. The memories are presented to us as fragmented snapshots that perfectly capture the atmosphere of growing up in Brooklyn. After her mother falls ill August, alongside her brother and father, moves to Brooklyn and is drawn to a trio of girls, Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi.

 

“How safe and strong they looked. How impenetrable.”

In Another Brooklyn Woodson explores the way in which a young girl struggles to understand her own grief, the feeling of belonging and community you feel among your friends, the highs and lows of growing up. Memory too plays a big role in these pages, as August remembers, sometimes with more clarity than other times, those years. This novella is lyrical, heady with nostalgia, and vividly renders a difficult yet unforgettable period of its main character’s life. The fragmented structure gives the novel a fast pace, a rhythm even, but it did sometimes prevent me from becoming fully immersed in a scene. Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi too blurred together and I could often only tell them apart by their hobbies (dance, theatre, and… modelling…?). Nevertheless, I did appreciate how once August becomes part of the group her voice is no longer singular but becomes plural (‘we did this/we were that’). It gave us an idea of how intense their bond was.

“And now the four of us were standing together for the first time. It must have felt like a beginning, an anchoring.”

While I wasn’t wholly enamored by this novella I would probably read more by Woodson.

my rating: ★★★☆☆

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A Crooked Tree by Una Mannion

“That summer when I so desperately tried to reel us all in, I didn’t understand the forces spinning us apart.”

The opening of A Crooked Tree is certainly chilling. Libby, our fifteen-year old narrator, is in the car with her siblings. When their squabbling gets too much their mother dumps twelve-year old Ellen on the side of the road. Hours pass, and to Libby’s increasing concern Ellen has yet to arrive. When Ellen finally makes an appearance, something has clearly happened to her.

Sadly, the suspenseful atmosphere that is so palpable at the start of this novel gives way to a slightly more predictable coming-of-age. The premise made me think that A Crooked Tree would be something in the realms of Winter’s Bone (we have the rural setting, the dysfunctional family, the bond between the siblings). But A Crooked Tree tells a far more conventional story: a summer of revelations (from the realisations that the adults around you have their own secrets to the having to say goodbye to the innocence of childhood). While what happened to Ellen certainly has an impact on the storyline, A Crooked Tree is not a mystery or thriller. We follow Libby as she fights and makes peace with her best friend and siblings, we learn of her less than stellar home-life, and, most of all, of her dislike of the neighbourhood’s bad boy (this last tread was pretty annoying). I did appreciate how vivid the setting was, from the references to 80s culture to Libby’s environment (she is particularly attuned to nature). I also really enjoyed the family dynamics and the unease that permeated many of the scenes. The author succeeds particularly in capturing that period of transition, from childhood to adolescence, without being sentimental.

What ultimately did not work for me was Libby herself. She’s hella bland. Love for trees aside there was little to her character. While her siblings, bff, and adults around her were fully fleshed out, Libby’s personality remains largely unexplored. Her obsession with the ‘bad boy’ was also really grating and her refusal to see him as anything but bad news didn’t ring entirely true. A lot of the observations she makes about the people around her seemed to originate from someone far more mature and insightful that she was (as in, they did not really seem to stem from the mind of a particularly naive 15-year old girl). Elle, although younger, would have made for a more convincing and interesting narrator. Libby…is painfully vanilla.

Still, Libby aside, I did find this novel to be engaging, occasionally unsettling, and exceedingly nostalgic.

ARC provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

my rating: ★★★ ¼

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Dove mi trovo (Whereabouts) by Jhumpa Lahiri

re-read: I was curious to read Lahiri’s self-translation, just to see whether I would like it us much as the original, and I can confirm that I did. I’m glad Lahiri translated the novel herself and I can’t actually decide if I preferred this English translation or its original Italian version. Anyway, I loved re-experiencing the story through a different lens.

Dove mi trovo, which will be published in English as Whereabouts next spring, is the first novel Jhumpa Lahiri’s has written in Italian. Having read, and deeply empathised with, Lahiri’s In Other Words—a nonfiction work in which she interrogates her love for and struggles with the Italian language—I was looking forward to Dove mi trovo. Although I bought this book more than a year ago, during my last trip to Italy, part of me wasn’t ready to read it just yet. A teensy-weensy part me feared that I would find her Italian to be stilted. As it turns out, I should have not second-guessed Lahiri.

This novel consists in a series of short chapters, between 2 to 6 pages long, in which we follow a nameless narrator as she occupies different spaces. The titles of these chapters in fact refer to the place—not always a ‘physical’ one such as in the case of the recurring ‘Tra sé e sé’ chapters (an expression that for the life of me I cannot translate in English)—she is in or thinking of. She’s on the street, in a bar, a restaurant, a museum, her apartment, by the seaside…you get the gist. The novel takes place during a single year, and our narrator will often remark on the current season. She’s a solitary woman, and although she’s deeply aware of her loneliness, she’s not burdened by it. It is perhaps because she’s alone that she can get lost in her surroundings or in her thoughts. Even in those occasions where she interacts with others—who also remain unmanned and are referred to as her former lover, her friend, a professor, etc—she remains a lonely person. By seeing the way she interacts or navigates certain spaces, we learn more about her. Ultimately, however, she retains an air of mystery.
One should not approach this novel hoping for a plot-driven novel. Dove mi trovo is very much about language. Lahiri’s Italian is crisp and deceptively simple. There are observations or conversations that are rendered with clarity, and there are passages that convey a sense of disquiet. While I can’t say whether Lahiri always articulated phrases like an Italian would, I didn’t notice any Englishism on her part. I loved the way Lahiri articulated her phrases and the correct if démodé terms she used.
While Lahiri’s ‘Italian voice’ differs from the one in her English works, Dove mi trovo is the kind of quietly reflective and deeply nostalgic novel that I would happily revisit time and again.


MY RATING: 4 out of 5 stars


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The Dutch House by Ann Patchett — book review

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“I was still at a point in my life when the house was the hero of every story, our lost and beloved country.”

Not Quite a Review, More of an Ode to Ann Patchett:

Usually I tend to post my reviews a couple of days after I’ve finished reading a book. With The Dutch House it took me nearly two weeks to work up the ‘courage’ to review it. The fact is that I loved The Dutch House so much that I find hard to see it as a ‘mere’ work of fiction.
This is the eight novel that I’ve read by Ann Patchett and she has yet to disappoint. It is difficult to ‘pick’ a favourite, even if I can see that throughout the course of her writing career she has really honed her craft. Yet, I wholeheartedly loved her early books (especially her unjustly underrated 1997 novel, The Magician’s Assistant), so to imply that she ‘keeps getting better’ would be doing her a disservice. Regardless of the scope of her stories (whether they take place in a short period of time in a particular city, such as in Run, or move us between two ‘extremes’, in The Magician’s Assistant we move between Los Angeles and Nebraska, or take us on even longer journey, for instance in State of Wonder we follow Dr. Marina Singh’s as she leaves Minnesota for the Amazon Rainforest) Patchett tends to explore the same themes: there is a focus on familial relationships, especially between siblings, and these established dynamics are often changed due to some ‘major’ event (often the death of a loved one/relative/colleague). Although The Dutch House is written in Patchett’s signature prose, which can be described as being deceptively simple it features a first-person perspective, which is a departure from her usual third-person point of view. Being inside Danny Conroy’s head makes for an immersive experience and within the first pages I was captivated by his story.
Through an act of retrospection Danny looks back to the past and what follows is a narrative that could be described as a bildungsroman. Danny’s childhood in the Dutch House—a large, if not incongruous, mansion in a prosperous suburb of Philadelphia—is clouded by the absence of his mother (a woman he cannot clearly recall but whose absence he nonetheless feels) and by his relationship with his remote father. It is Maeve, Danny’s older sister, who takes on the role of ‘parental’ figure, and their relationship is very much the underlying thread of the story.

The Dutch House, weighed down by its history, inspires fascination in Andrea, the woman who will go on to become Danny and Maeve’s step-mother. The novel begins in fact with Danny’s memory of his first meeting with Andrea, one that seems to have almost a fairy-tale-esque quality in that it was the day where ‘everything’ seemed to change.
Throughout Danny’s narrative we will also see the way in which the Conroy siblings remain drawn to the house, a house which seems to acquire an emblematic role in the lives of those who have lived in: it represents their childhoods, their father—his career, his marriage(s)—and the rather unfortunate VanHoebeeks. Patchett renders this house without loosing herself in extensive architectural descriptions, rather she brings to the foreground some of its features (Maeve’s windowseat) and some of its objects. The paintings within the house (Maeve’s portrait and those of the VanHoebeeks) also seem to hold a certain function in Danny’s recollection of his past.

“Maybe it was neoclassical, though with a simplicity in the lines that came closer to Mediterranean or French, and while it was not Dutch, the blue delft mantels in the drawing room, library, and master bedroom were said to have been pried out of a castle in Utrecht and sold to the VanHoebeeks to pay a prince’s gambling debts. The house, complete with mantels, had been finished in 1922.”

In his remembrance Danny frequently makes vague, if not downright oblique, allusions to later events or revelations, which in turn creates tension between his past and present. Also framing Danny’s recollection of his youth are a series of scenes in which alongside Maeve, he sits in her car outside the Dutch House.
Danny also questions the veracity of his memories: “But we overlay the present onto the past. We look back through the lens of what we know now, so we’re not seeing it as the people we were, we’re seeing it as the people we are, and that means the past has been radically altered.” He reassess certain moments and figures of his past, finding hidden complexities in what had at first appeared to be seemingly unremarkable occurrences.

“Do you think it’s possible to ever see the past as it actually was?”

While the novel is narrated by Danny he never paints himself as the ‘hero’ of his own story. He often wonders whether he should have acted in a different way towards someone or something, trying to understand why things unfurled the way that they did. While the motivations of other characters might escape him, and possibly us, they are never reduced to a certain role/function. The each have a story even if we are not always made privy to it. An although there is an awareness of the limitations provided by Danny’s narration, the story never feels restricted to his experiences and worldview.

“Whatever romantic notions I might have harbored, whatever excuses or allowances my heart had ever made on her behalf, blew out like a match.”

My edition of this novel includes an essay in which Ann Patchett says that “for a long time I had planned to call the book Maeve as it was her story.” The novel, in fact, very much pivots around Maeve but it is her brother who is telling her tale.
We see the way in which their experiences in the Dutch House makes them determined to fulfil their desires or to take a certain path in their life: for Danny that is to become, as his father before him, a real-estate developer, while Maeve wants to carry on working a job she loves even if many consider her to be overqualified to do. While to some degree Danny’s vision of Maeve influences our perception of her, we are always aware that she may have hidden qualities. What is certainly undeniable is her love for her brother. Their bond is portrayed with such frankness and poignancy as to become vividly real in the reader’s mind.
This a story full of beauty and sorrow. There are regrets, wonderful reflections on memory, moments that are brimming with love or sadness…Patchett spins a tale in which families fall apart or come together. It is an intimate depiction of the bond between two siblings. Time and again Danny draws strength from his relationship to his sister, and even when he begins to feel unmoored from his own life, and as he struggles trying to reconcile himself with his past, Maeve provides him with a sense of belonging.
Patchett’s sense of place is as detailed and evocative as ever. She seamlessly renders midcentury America through Danny’s narration, evoking within me a sense of nostalgia for a country I’ve never even been to. And while Danny’s story spans decades, it maintains its focus on the same group of people, painting an intimate portrait of Danny’s friends and family.
…to put it simply I fell in love with it. Patchett’s harmonious prose made the experience all the more beautiful, and I was so enthralled by her story and her characters that to I struggled to think of them as works of fiction.
What more can I say? I think this is a masterpiece.

“We had made a fetish out of our misfortune, fallen in love with it. I was sickened to realize we’d kept it going for so long, not that we had decided to stop.”

My rating: ★★★★★ 5 stars

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Akin by Emma Donoghue — book review

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“He and this boy were quite alien to each other, he decide. Yet, in an odd way, akin.”

Akin tells the touching story of Noah Selvaggio, a retired seventy-nine year old chemistry professor, and his eleven year old great-nephew, Michael Young. Noah is a widower who has few remaining connections in the world and his fairly quiet existence is thrown out of balance when he is more or less cajoled into becoming Michael’s temporary carer. Michael’s mother is in prison, his father, Noah’s nephew, died of an overdose, and his maternal grandmother has recently passed away. Noah is, quite understandably, reticent to the idea of looking after Michael…he is aware of the limitations that come with his age, and having never had any contact with Michael or his mother, he feels a mixture of guilt and unease at this sudden ‘reunion’.
Yet, given the circumstances, not only does he find himself accepting to briefly take on this role but he is also forced to take Michael with him in a much overdue trip to Nice, Noah’s place of birth.

“And Mr. Selvaggio is your great-uncle, which is another kind of uncle.”
“What’s so great about him?” Micheal wanted to know.
Whether that was ignorance or wit, it did make Noah smile.”

The simple and unadorned narrative takes us alongside Noah and Michael’s in their stay in Nice. We follow them as they walk around Nice, eat a lot, visit museums and other historical sites. All the while Noah is also preoccupied with a mystery of sorts…having come across as some old photos Noah begins to fear that his mother might have been hiding something…his mind begins to formulate different kind of theories regarding his mother’s actions in WWII: was she a collaborator?

“Such convoluted grammar death required: what tense to describe the hypothetical emotions of a woman who didn’t exist anymore?”

Michael’s constant presence however demands Noah’s undivided attention. The child is rude and bratty, and treats Noah with suspicion and contempt. The two are at odds from the very start. Noah, who spend most of his days living in the past, attempts to make some sort of connection with Michael by acting as a tour guide of sorts. He also reiterates his and Michaels’s family history (Noah’s grandfather was a famous photographer) as a way of reinforcing their familial bond. Michael’s attention however seems wholly devoted to his phone. He swears a lot, demands junk food all the time, and is bored by Noah and his ‘lessons’.
There is a dissonance between the two: the things that have shaped Noah’s life seems to be of little relevance to Michael. At the same time Michael has experienced hardships that Noah finds difficulty to comprehend.

“In the pictures Michael looked older, Noah thought; harder. But really, eleven — that was barely formed.”

The two wander about Nice, often a despondent Michael’s following in Noah’s stead. The city seems to stir something within Noah so that he finds himself compelled to discover the truth about his mother.
Interrogating the past brings to light some deeply disturbing facts. Nice’s own history, the Excelsior Hotel (which happens to be the hotel Noah and Michael are staying in), the risks taken by members of the resistance, the torture they could be made to endure…the narrative portrays in sharp clarity one of the darkest periods of human history.

The dynamic between Noah and Michael eases some of the tension from this perusal of the past. The quarrels had a very natural flow to them; at time they seemed to escalate out of nothing, while in other instances they boiled down to nothing. They constantly seemed exasperated by one another, and I soon grew accustomed to the rhythm of their conversations.
I found myself deeply caring for Noah. His attempts to reach Michael could be both sweet and awkward, and Michael too, in spite of his horrible behaviour, slowly grew on me.

“Why don’t you start it now?”
“I’m good.”
Funny how that had come to mean no.

This genuine story offers us with plenty of thoughtful reflections regarding the differences and similarities between Noah and Michael’s generations. While Michael easily navigates the ‘modern’ world, Noah is accustomed to a different one.
The novel also broaches many subjects—topical and non—in a very frank and natural way; commentaries regarding America and France are embedded in a very smooth manner, so that it never feels overdone.

“How could you do your homework if you didn’t even have a home to work in?”

I was moved by Noah’s internal turmoils, by his introspections and examinations that move between past and present. His ‘kinship’ with Michael was rendered slowly and subtly, so that their relationship never blossoms into an unlikely affectionate bond but the story leaves us with possibility of a camaraderie of sorts between the two.
Filled with equal parts humour and heart, Akin is a wonderfully compelling novel, one that I would happily read again.

“He supposed it was always that way with the dead; they slid away before we knew enough to ask them the right questions. All we could do was remember them, as much as we could remember of them, whether it was accurate or not Walk the same streets that they’d walked; take our turn.”

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4 stars

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