Summer Book Reviews: 2 of 3
I have only to break into the tightness of a strawberry, and I see summer—its dust and lowering skies.—Toni Morrison, “The Bluest Eye”
I’ve gone off one stack of books and started on the next. Hopefully doubling back at some point to those I’ve put aside this summer.
FLEISHMAN IS IN TROUBLE by Tessa Brodesser-Akner
There is too much asked of women (hasn’t that always been the case) and in Brodesser-Akner’s debut novel she explains why with snippets of intel from all sorts of women. “Summon your witnesses,” by Aeschylus is the epigraph the author uses to introduce the book. Toby Fleishman is in dating app heaven with women sending him pictures of their genitals when his ex-wife, Rachel drops their children off and disappears. Fleishman bemoans his predicament: how is he to parent two young children, date, and garner that promotion at work he wants so desperately. We get Toby’s perspective for most of the novel, about his chubby childhood to the burdens of having a wife who is the breadwinner and social-climber. Two other characters, Libby, an unhappy stay-at-home wife, and Seth, the always smiling but lonely party-animal, give other viewpoints on the messiness of love and commitment. In the final section, we find out what happened to Rachel and why she disappeared, giving the ending a whole new perspective on the Fleishman’s marriage. And kudos to Brodesser-Akner for letting Rachel have the last word.
Favorite line(s): “You’re always angry,” he’d say to her. And then finally she could admit that she was, particularly after those therapy sessions where she saw just how disgusted both Toby and the therapist were by her annoyance at even having to be there. As if you had to celebrate going to couples therapy! As if you had to rejoice over the time and money you were spending not to make things better, but to get them back to bearable. It always struck her as ironic that the revelation of her anger would come not from the therapy itself but from the fact of it. Still, after all those accusations, Toby never wondered why she was angry. He just hated her for being so. The anger was a garden that she kept tending, and it was filled with a toxic weed whose growth she couldn’t control. He didn’t understand that he was a gardener to the thing, too. He didn’t understand that they’d both planted seeds there.
ASK AGAIN, YES by Mary Beth Keane
The novel opens in New York City in 1973 with two cops, Francis Gleason and Brian Stanhope, responding to a possible robbery in progress. We learn much about these two characters in the way they react to this event. The two men and their families move next door to each other in a suburb north of the city. Over the years, the kids become close while the couples avoid one another. Until twenty years into the story, and Francis is called to help the Stanhopes. The consequences of this one night propel the narrative for the rest of the book. I can’t remember reading a novel that portrays mental illness with such exactness. As hard as it is for these characters, this is a story about forgiveness.
Favorite line(s): Kate walked home alone. The sky seemed bigger, emptier, since high school started, and for the first time she saw Gillam as a small place, set among other small places, and she craved to know what it would be like to walk beyond it, walk beyond the net town over, too, and the one after that, until the craving had been satisfied. She imagined a camera overhead pulling back and back like it did in a movie sometimes, and Gillam lost among the twinkling lights of so many other places until it was just a speck, and then New York was just a speck, and then the United States, North American, the entire globe.
CONVERSATIONS WITH FRIENDS by Sally Rooney
I liked Rooney’s “Normal People” so much I had to read her debut novel. It is equally as good if not better. The story sounds simple enough. Frances is a college student in Dublin, studying writing when she meets the handsome husband of a photographer friend at a poetry reading. While Frances’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Bobbi, pines for the photographer, Frances falls for the husband, Nick. The four become friends—platonically then romantically—before and after spending a vacation together in France. The four characters that make up the novel, the introverts and the extroverts, their pathos, and passions, are made remarkable by Rooney’s writing. There are no weird plot twists just Rooney’s uncanny ability to mine the underlying motives of her characters. And, shame on me, I didn’t mark any examples of this in the margins to share with you.
Favorite line(s): I told him I would cross the road first. It was dark then, and everything was gathered around points of light: shop windows, faces flushed with cold, a row of taxis idling along the curb. I heard a shake of reins and the sound of hooves across the street. Entering the park through a side gate the noise of traffic seemed to turn itself down, like it caught in the bare branches and dissolved in air. My breath laid a white path in front of me.
NOTES TO SELF by Emilie Pine
When in the throes of mental turmoil, write about it. Advice I give others and follow myself. And so does Pine in these honest and heartbreaking interconnected essays. The book opens with Pine and her sister at the bedside of their dying father—an alcoholic who loves only himself—but still, they tend to him and worry as if his survival is their job. “You’re ten and your mum is out at a party and the phone rings and it’s your dad, and he says that he is going to kill himself that night, and you say ‘But I love you Dad’ ad he says he knows, that you’re the only person who does, and then he hangs up.” She writes about bleeding, once a month and on the page. “Perhaps because if getting my period was “becoming a woman,” I fear that the end of my period is the end of being a woman.” And running away and living on the streets and coming home as if nothing has changed, just her. “Perhaps the most corrosive aspect of a lonely life is not the time spent alone, but the time spent in a crowd, feeling left out.” And if this all heartbreaking enough, she writes with candor about her struggles with fertility and then her decision not to have a baby. “I am done marking myself through absence. I am done using the word failure about my body. I am done living and writing that story.”
Favorite line(s): And the truth is, I am tired of being a feminist. I am tired of it being women’s responsibility to identify and tackle and fix sexism. I am tired of it being so necessary and so difficult. And I am tired of my own acts of internalizing, tired of my complicity, tired of playing the game.