This installment: a haunting novel set in Haiti; another in Micronesia with long-lived denizens; a memoir in which a travel blog turns into an epic journey; a wildly florid novel based in the deep South; a novel and DVD (compare and contrast) about college admissions; and the mess of a common-law marriage on the rocks.
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwige Danicat
In Haiti, a fisherman loses his wife as his daughter Claire is born. He fosters Claire out and reclaims her at 4 but after three years offers her to the fabric store owner, her first wet nurse, who lost her own daughter in an accident. During an intense night in which another fisherman is lost at sea, Claire disappears and we’re left hanging. Will she return? Patois and ghostly happenings stud the story, creating rich atmosphere. I didn’t totally “get” it but kept reading so I could enter this exotic, tragic world.
The People in the Trees by Hanya Yagaihara
Here’s another book I didn’t completely embrace but the subject matter was so fascinating that I hung in there. It has the outline of a scientific tract: copious footnotes and fabricated Micronesian islands complete with map and glossary. Norton, a doctor, discovers a strange tribe in which some denizens are well over 100 years old. They’re in good shape physically but their minds have degraded. The secret: the meat of a rare indigenous turtle. He revisits the islands, smuggling out samples to try to replicate this secret of life, and also takes four “specimens” home for further study. Needless to say, these transplanted islanders are miserable. When “progress” and big pharma discover the islands’ promise, they ruin them. Norton ends up taking many island children home with him and therein lies his personal downfall. Such an odd character, not very sympathetic. And such a peculiar island culture, complete with sodomy as the boys’ rite of passage.
Mumbai New York Scranton by Tamara Shopsin
At first I thought I was reading a charming but lightweight blog as Shopsin takes us along on her scattershot trip to India. She’s a freelance illustrator and her husband is equally creative; photos and drawings are interspersed. Her family runs an eccentric restaurant where she still lends a hand. She’s not feeling good for much of the trip—turista variants? Back home, a very small funky studio in Brooklyn, she returns to her routine but something’s definitely off. (We are also introduced to the joys of her other house in Pennsylvania. Who knew Scranton had such attractions?) Then we find out what’s really going on and the material coalesces into intensity. An epic journey in an unusual format, and I really felt privy to a fresh, lively intelligence.
Lookaway, Lookaway by Wilton Barnhardt
Oh those Jarvises, an old Southern family who exemplify the gamut of the region’s excesses. Matriarch Jerene presides over a little museum; her husband, who hasn’t worked for two decades (later we find out why), is a Civil War buff and reenactor. Her alcoholic brother Gaston writes best selling potboilers. The four offspring each rebel in different directions: a much-married, tough realtor, Annie; gay Joshua; reluctant reverend Bo; and the youngest, Jerilyn, who’s slated for traditional marriage but manages to screw that up royally. Meanwhile, money’s running out, developers threaten an old battlefield, and everything goes to hell in a hand-basket. Sometimes it all seems like Too Much, but the South can be like that—overstuffed, florid, passionate and ridiculous in turn. A heady read.
Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz
Portia lives with Marc, a Princeton professor, and serves in their admissions department. She loves her job which takes her all over the East Coast to find surprising candidates. At an experimental school, Quest, there’s an autodidact prospect, Jeremiah who’d be great despite his spotty record: fabulous test scores, a passion for learning and a questing mind, all over the map. His champion, John, is a charming headmaster. He and Portia have a spontaneous tryst, her shaky relationship with Marc crumbles, she takes a dive, and we learn her secret, another kind of admission, as it were. In a rash act she rips apart what’s left of her life but opens herself up for something more authentic. Then there’s Portia’s bohemian feminist mother, an incredible character with challenges of her own. Lots of local color and detail. It really grabbed me.
I saw the DVD recently, which I liked a lot, and went back to what I’d written about the book in 2009 (above). Always so fascinating to see how the material is tweaked for the screen, in this case, significantly. Tina Fey is great as Portia and Lily Tomlin is a terrifying hoot as her fierce mother. I loved the scene in which the tribunal sits around the big table and candidates drop through trapdoors when their applications are denied. (Oh what you can do on film…). Lots of broad comedy. Wallace Shawn is the head of admissions, such an odd little fellow who wields so much power.
The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison
We meet Jodi first in a luxurious condo in Chicago, with a sweet dog, and satisfying profession: a part-time psychotherapist. But then there’s her husband Todd, increasingly more distant. When we tune into him (chapters alternate) we find out why. Natasha, a young coworker, has snared him and now she’s pregnant and the original couple’s domestic setup is blown to hell. Jodi and Todd never bothered to get married and now Jodi has no legal leg to stand on. Ironically, Todd sometimes feels he’s been railroaded by Natasha and yearns for Jodi’s calm, understanding presence. But his destiny has taken over and an eviction is in the wings. Desperate Jodi resorts to a shocking “solution.” No happy ending here but a very gripping study of denial and betrayal.
Back next Monday