Wednesday, March 25, 2015

"What Alice Forgot": A Decade to Do-over

It isn't summer yet, but Liane Moriarty's 2008 "What Alice Forgot" made me dream about the warm days spent on beach sands with a page turner that is funny, touching, poignant and full of love drama and dilemmas.  Liane Moriarty whose "Big Little Lies" and "The Husband's Secret" propelled her to best seller success, shows heart and substance with her story of Alice, a 39 year old woman who falls and hits her head during a spin class and loses an entire decade's worth of memories.

When Alice regains consciousness, she believes that she is 29, pregnant with her first child, and madly in love with her husband, Nick.  Unfortunately for her, she discovers that she is a hyperactive PTO mom whose marriage is on the brink of divorce who has become estranged from her sister and her neighborhood.  Obsessed instead with possessions, her schedule, and her workouts, Alice's 39 year old self is a far cry from who she was and believed she would become a decade earlier.

In typical Moriarty form, she shines a sinister light on the state of the modern day suburbanites - harried parents who are too self-obsessed, too busy, too overworked, and too over committed to everything except for their marriages or their children.  Considered a book club favorite, this novel asks important questions like who do you think you will become in 10 years, or what has drastically changed in the past decade of your life? What would you like to change if you got a decade do-over?

The strength of this novel lies in the slow recovery of Alice's memories.  She encounters "friends" who she doesn't know, indifference where there was once warmth, a schedule that frightens her, a house that seems unfamiliar, and children she has never met.  The most touching aspect of the book comes in the form of her fragile relationship with her estranged husband.  What happened to her marriage? It's a slow discovery of the facts of her life and who she (and her husband) have turned out to be.

I raced through this book, and found myself wanting to shut out the rest of the world to read it. Moriarty has mastered the art of making her reader turn the page.  But this isn't all fluff and soap opera amnesia antics; she's a smart writer who crafts characters who are both strong and vulnerable, real and relatable, who fall apart and grow in the span of 300 pages.  I enjoyed this book more than "Big Little Lies" (which I also liked), and MUCH more than "The Husband's Secret" (which I found a bit bland and too sinister).

Each of Moriarty's novels, although addictive and easy to read, bring up big life questions like how do we mend our mistakes and broken relationships? What makes a strong marriage fall apart in a decade? What is important to hold onto and what is okay to let go? It is a perfect book club book and a perfect pre-summer read to get you dreaming of warm sunshine and toting the perfect page turner to your sandy, summertime oasis.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

"The Silent Wife": A terrifying and realistic portrait of a relationship gone awry

I was beginning to think that maybe I am adverse to thrillers - especially dark ones about domestic issues that end in very unsettling ways.  Although everyone I know LOVED "Gone Girl" and "The Girl on the Train," I found both of them okay at first, but stopped enjoying them about half way through the book.  What was missing for me in both of those books was a likable character.  They were page turners, though, and many people seem to judge books by how quickly they want to finish them.  I, on the other hand, judge books by how I would like them to never end (like "All the Light You Cannot See" . . . I would have been happy if Anthony Doerr tacked on another 200 pages to that book).

So, what was it about "The Silent Wife" by A.S.A. Harrison that intrigued me enough to say that I enjoyed it way better than either "Gone Girl" or "The Girl on the Train" when it hasn't received as much attention from the press or from readers?  For me the methodical, terse narrative about Jodi Brett and Todd Gilbert, a very antiseptic couple who are more quiet roommates who tolerate the others' faults to stick to a routine, felt way more plausible than the over the top follies of the characters in other thrillers that I have read.  On the first page, the narrative tells us that her marriage to Todd "is approaching the final stage of disintegration, that [Jodi's] notions about who she is and how she ought to conduct herself are far less stable than she supposes, given that a few short months are all it will take to make a killer out of her." This sets up the insidious tale of how Jodi becomes a killer.

In the every other chapter set up (one chapter is titled "Her" and the next is titled "Him", and it flip flops like that throughout the novel), we find out that Jodi never wanted to get married, but after 20 years together, she and Todd, at least in her mind, are married.  She allows him his infidelities knowing that he always finds his way back to her.  She spends her days counseling a few select clients, walking her dog, making gourmet meals and taking the occasional floral arranging class.  Her life seems cold, calculated and very controlled just like their beautiful streamlined, clutter free lake view apartment in Chicago.

Todd, on the other hand, is a self made successful real estate flipper.  He takes the edge off of his stressful job by having a daily joint, and one woman or another on the side. Although his little flings never seem to amount to much, he strays too far from Jodi after his young girlfriend (the daughter of his best friend) tells him that she's pregnant.  She's young and makes Todd feel alive after a crippling bout of depression.  Although he loves Jodi, she doesn't make him feel vibrant in his mid-40s the way his girlfriend, Natasha does.  The only problem, though, is that he doesn't know how to break it to Jodi that when he leaves her she quite literally will lose everything that they built together in the past 20 years since they are not legally married.  He also isn't prepared for the backlash from his best friend.

Maybe what I liked so much about this book was the psychological aspect.  Although I didn't love the flashbacks (written like a movie script) with Jodi's therapist Gerard, I did love the deep psychological exploration of what made Jodi tick. The other aspect of the book was the probability of it.  Relationships sometimes reach a tipping point even as both people involved are aware of the issues because no one wants to disturb the routine.  Sometimes it's the silence in a marriage that ends it, or the lack of passion, or dishonesty. Both characters in Harrison's book are smart, too smart really for what happens to them.  The writing is smart as well, and it's a pity that this debut novel from A.S.A. Harrison was her last novel since she died shortly before the release of "The Silent Wife."

If you liked "Gone Girl" or "The Girl on the Train" most likely you will like "The Silent Wife" as well.  If you are like me, though, maybe you'll like it even if you didn't enjoy the other two more popular, sinister books about dysfunctional marriages that end in tragic and unexpected ways.

Monday, March 9, 2015

"The Martian": A wild ride with an American hero through the red planet

"So that's the situation. I'm stranded on Mars.  I have no way to communicate with Hermes or Earth.  Everyone thinks I'm dead.  I'm in a Hab designed to last thirty-one days. If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst.  If the Hab breaches, I'll just kind of explode.  If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death.  So yeah, I'm f'd."

Six days prior to Mark Watney's break down of his predicament on Mars, he was one of the first people ever to walk on the surface of the red planet, but now it looks like he'll be the first person to ever die there unless he figures out a way to survive . . . for 4 years when the return mission to Mars can rescue him.

It's not the best situation, but somehow Mark Watney who was left behind by his fellow crew mates after a freak wind storm threatened to kill all of them, finds a way to not let his Martian dilemma deter him from using his engineering skills, botany expertise and his witty sense of humor to help him survive even the most dire of circumstances that arise in his fight for survival.

In the same strain as movies like "Castaway" or "Gravity," the readers of Andy Weir's NYTimes Best Seller "The Martian"roots for Mark's survival.  He's alone.  He's in a place with no other human beings.  His likelihood of getting out alive is REALLY LOW.  Unlike either of these movies, though, the weakness (maybe the strength for some readers) is the tendency for Weir, a self proclaimed "space nerd," to veer too much in the technicalities and science behind each of the emergency situations that arise.  When Mark decides to harvest potatoes to keep himself alive, the reader gets a lesson in farming, soil production, fertilizer needs (Mark uses his own human waste), how to create water, and how to even split the potatoes.  For some readers, they might love the pages and pages of mathematical equations, the space / science technical problem solving, and the hypothesizing about potential hazards that will arise.  For me, I wanted more of the life and death dilemmas that Mark was facing to surface in a more philosophic and psychological ways, and I never really got that.  Mark simply seemed to crack more jokes as NASA and his own unflappable ingenuity helped him to survive day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year.

My husband read this book on our vacation and urged me to read it.  I am not a Sci-Fi / Fantasy lover, and usually tend to steer away from books that my husband loves, but hearing him laugh out loud and basically eat this book like a bowl full of dark chocolate almonds made me reconsider.  I need to get out of my reading comfort zone of murky memoirs, epic historical fictions and my favorite, books about dysfunctional families.  This space thriller did make me turn the pages quickly (except the overly technical parts which thankfully dissipated as Mark's journey lasted longer and longer), and I did actually laugh out loud in two different parts of the book.  I found myself criticizing the writing style (the word "nerd" is used quite a bit and let's face it, Weir is more of a space nerd than a writer), and I thought that a few of the characters were heavy handed stereotypes with really badly written dialogue.

Overall, though, I loved that Mark survived by watching "Three's Company" reruns.  I learned about space travel - especially about travel to and on Mars, and I had a renewed sense of the spirit of the American "survival at all costs" and innovation that Watney represents.  What he does to survive is truly amazing, and it will have you questioning your own problem solving capabilities.  It may even make you consider the question, "If you were left behind in space and no one could rescue you for four years, what comfort items would you want with you to help pass the time and help you with morale?"

This book will surely become a blockbuster movie.  It will surely sell millions of copies.  It will surely make Andy Weir a well known author, and people will surely enjoy it.  I'm glad that my husband from time to time can pull me out of my reading ruts and introduce me to new stories that teach me something new. "The Martian" taught me that staying calm and laughing in the face of even the most improbable dilemmas is better than panicking, and it provided me with a hero worth cheering for.

Monday, March 2, 2015

"I'll Be Seeing You": Letters, Love, and Loss

My friend Rose told me that her experience reading "I'll Be Seeing You" by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan (who never actually met each other while writing this book) was like finding a box of letters in her grandmother's attic and reading them with a cup of tea in hand - learning about the past and being privy to secrets and the stories shared from a friendship forged by longing. 

"I'll be Seeing You" follows the 1943-1945 correspondence between Rita Vincenzo, a sensible woman from Iowa whose husband and son are both away serving in WWII, and Glory Whitehall, a wealthy young mother from  Massachusetts whose husband is also in the war. Their letter writing begins after a 4-H meeting urged  women who were waiting for their loved ones to return from the war to find comfort in other women who could understand their circumstances.  The women develop a strong friendship as they share their respective stories of their families, and how they try to pass the days as they wait for life to return to a new sense of normal.  Their worry over their loved ones, their fear of receiving the dreaded death telegram, their daily joys and sorrows bond them together and help each of them overcome bouts of despair and depression as the war continues.  

Glory writes about the birth of a baby girl, parenting a rambunctious toddler (who contracts an illness that leaves him a shell of his former self), and mostly with the intensity of her relationship with her husband's (and her) best friend, Levi who was asked to "look after" Glory in her husband's absence.  Rita writes about her loneliness, her wicked neighbor, her son's secret girlfriend, and her best friend's relationship with a handsome stranger with a shady past.  Each of their stories bring them closer together and gives them a sense of comfort that there is someone sharing their pain and joy.  Along with the more personal stories they share, Rita also gives Glory gardening advice for her victory garden to grow in her seaside climate and they each share war time recipes like Tomato Soup Cake and Mock Veal Cutlets.  

What this book did for me was show me a very personal side of WWII that is often forgotten - what the women did while they waited.  1943 differed greatly from our modern day society where many women work outside of the home and enjoy choices that women in the 1940s could never dream of.  The women then relied on their men, but in their men's absence what many of the women learned is that they are strong beyond measure - especially when they could help each other.  In one letter Glory adds, "P.S. I love being a woman.  A woman among amazing women.  Women who understand just how much we need one another." 

It's true.  

The power of women's friendships and connections through tragedy and triumph is a beautiful thing.  Women connect in different ways then men connect - ask any woman who has a life long friend about their soul connection with that woman.  Ask any woman about the special women in her life and how important those bonds are for her - the talks, the sharing, the nights out spilling their hearts to each other over bottles of wine or meeting for coffee just to connect face to face and share in each others' company.  

This book made me want to connect with all my best friends.  It made me want to sit down and write good old fashioned letters (not Facebook messages or text messages, but real in depth letter writing).  Our best friends are the ones who make us feel connected to something larger than ourselves, who tell us the truth even when we don't want to hear it, who bring us back from the brink of destroying ourselves, and who help us make sense out of the world even when nothing makes sense. They are our truest allies in wartime and in peacetime.