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In Glasgow, in hospital, Lenni is terminal. She’s only 17 but reveals an amazing, refreshing, truth-telling spirit. She teams up with 83-year-old Margot in an art class. Their project: to make 100 paintings so they won’t be forgotten. (83 + 17—get it?) And oh, what stories emerge from each. Lenni also forges a bond with Father Arthur, the chaplain who’s ready to retire, and bedevils him with provocative questions about the meaning of life. I listened to this in CD form and loved the narrators’ accents.
When I was a teenager, I loved the thought of swooning: beautiful and unconscious. So do these English girls in the early ‘70s. One summer, inspired by old paintings, they staged romantic simulated drownings in a nearby river for fun. An undercurrent: attraction to each other, with tragic consequences. One participant, Ruth, now has an adolescent daughter, Maeve, who learns bits of the old story via a family friend, Stuart. He’s a photographer who recreates those photos with Maeve modeling, and we know where that’s going, unfortunately: a crush, consummated. Ruth’s marriage, echoing the crumbling house she inherited, falls apart. Atmospheric and evocative.
Huong arrives in New Orleans after a harrowing voyage. It’s ’79. She brings along young Tuan and Bhin, born along the way. She leaves behind her professor husband who inexplicably balked when they boarded. No English to speak of but she’s fiercely determined and makes a functional, stripped-down life for her little family in a Vietnamese compound which bears the name Versailles. (Just one example of the irony shot through the story.) Tuan gets mixed up with gangs. Bhin, now Ben, is bookish, gay, and gets out via academia. We follow them through the decades until—of course—Katrina strikes. Losses indeed, but the human spirit prevails at the end. An immersive and evocative reading experience.
Sharkey is a legendary surfer. But he’s getting old and life is losing its spark. Grumpy, repetitive, drunk—a far cry from the skilled and confident guy who turned his back on his rich family and followed his dream into waters near and far. We get the back story. Like pursuing the 100-foot wave which he surfed unobserved (someone else got there first). Wild times with Hunter Thompson. Lots of action (sometimes I felt a little seasick), lots of sadness, culture clashes (locals vs haoles). A journey in inimitable Theroux fashion, better (for me) on the page than in the sea.
At the heart of this novel lies photography, that medium whose practitioners are by nature observers, both removed from and intimate with their subjects. Eccentric Rye becomes a sensation but never panders to his followers; he travels extensively to find what speaks to him. His wife, a professor who loves the rural life, stays home on their farm. Julian, who attended the same seminal workshop as Rye back in their student days, feels passed over but succeeds in the commercial world. His marriage to Magda, also in that workshop, is on the rocks. Rye is found dead. A suicide? The relationships and rivalries among these three characters play out tragically and secrets are revealed. The tone: a bit chilly, sometimes melancholy. Lots of lore about the art and craft of capturing images.
Back next week.