This installment: a quirky book on the dissolution of a marriage (f); ultimate voyeurism (f); a dad who didn’t love his daughter (at first) nf; Oklahoma family dysfunction (nf); another novel based on Jonestown (f); and a bigamist in Palo Alto (f).
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
At first I wasn’t sure what I was reading—quirky short paragraphs of arcane factoids intermixed with very short personal anecdotes. But it didn’t take long for the story to develop in this fashion. We meet the wife, writer and mother of small children in NYC, struggling with quotidian issues like lice and then writer’s block and then marriage woes. Almost like pointillism , the picture builds emotional intensity and there’s a sweet denouement out of what seems like rubble. Lots of lively material in a small package.
Visible City by Tova Mirvis
In those big-windowed NYC apartment buildings, people’s lives seem on display. Nina spends hours studying her neighbors’ activities, full of curiosity. Then in real life, those folks intersect and things get juicy and fraught. There’s a scholar obsessed with stained glass, a therapist whose life feels stale (they’re married to each other), their daughter who’s disenchanted with her current life, a lawyer about to burn out, and more. Even two apparently unpleasant neighbors with contentious dogs undergo transformation. A lively read.
The Reluctant Father by Phillip Toledano
There’s nothing quite as refreshing as candor, especially stuff most people won’t cop to. In this case, Toledano wasn’t instantly in love with his baby daughter. He illustrates this with short, trenchant observations and evocative photos. Yes, he’s finally won over by Loulou’s charm, but it’s a gnarly voyage and might provide a kind of back-door comfort to other parents not instantly smitten by their own progeny.
The Splendid Things We Planned by Blake Bailey
Things go awry for the Bailey family when good-looking, charming, talented Scott, Blake’s older brother, loses himself in drink and drugs. Oklahoma setting, though mother Marlies misses the Bohemian NYC days of her youth. I read memoirs like this with horror-fascination, especially when money and privilege can’t repair the mess of addiction. Bailey, who’s written fine biographies of others, limns this very intimate portrayal with equal skill.
Children of Paradise by Fred D’Aguiar
Another novel based on Jonestown, and what terrifying, fertile material it is. In this case, the centerpiece of the colony is a gorilla named Adam which the preacher uses in bizarre and perverse ways. I wasn’t sure how sentient Adam actually was but the magical realism that pervades the creepy jungle setting seems very appropriate. I was already familiar with many details: the rigid but erratic rules; the near starvation of the members as contrasted with the inner circle’s bounty, and the hypnotic magnetism of the leader. But discovered others, such as the pollution of the river by the colony’s pig herds and the corrupt local government that refused to act despite nearby tribes’ complaints. Very atmospheric and still shocking after all these years.
Circle of Wives by Alice LaPlante
Palo Alto isn’t associated with high crime, but here a distinguished dermatologist is found dead in a hotel room and a local detective is suspicious. Especially when it comes out that he was currently married to three women. Seems like a stretch of plausibility but he cleverly carried it off and the two most recent wives only found out at his funeral. In some ways it shows how easily we can be fooled. The women are very different from each other, too. We get each perspective and in kaleidoscopic fashion the story finally clicks into place. Intriguing.
Back next week.