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It is January in New England and while we finally have enough snow that the sunlight reflects delightfully everywhere, January is often not the easiest month to enjoy. As with a lot of life, what sometimes helps is to have something to look forward to. So today, we review two books that will not be out until April, because sometimes anticipation is an amazing cure for doldrums no matter what the weather. And for those who do not enjoy waiting, we review one book (chosen as it fits what we belatedly realize is an unintentional theme of love and heartbreak; think of today's theme as an early gift both for those who love and those who hate Valentines Day?) that you can read today.
Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld (4 April 2023). The author of Prep (which produced one of the best book club discussions ever) and American Wife which made me rethink Laura Bush, returns with a romance novel. Romance novels are not my cup of tea - I can't remember the last one I read; and yet, this one found it's way to my bedside table and eventually my hands and brain. The main characters - Sally, a writer for TNO, a thinly disguised fictional version of SNL, and Noah, a gorgeous pop star who hosts TNO a year or two before our recent pandemic lockdown are relatable, even if their professions are not. They connect, breaking a rule Sally wrote into a TNO sketch - the Danny Horst rule - that theorizes "hot" men will not date regular women, but regular men regularly date "hot" women. And because there needs to be a plot for there to be a novel, they disconnect, and then connect again during lockdown, or do they? Sally and Noah don't seem contrived. Their funny TNO friends - Viv, Henrietta and Danny in particular - charm. And, the plot blends "boy meets girl boy loses girl ..." with pandemic retellings and Midwestern wholesomeness/cheesiness to a great overall affect. I was simultaneously entertained and casting the inevitable movie in my head. If necessary, forget you don't do romance novels and try this one; I am pretty certain you will be glad you did, even if your own life currently seems the opposite of romantic and you worry this might depress you more than your lack of romance already does. As the Washington Post has said, “Sittenfeld has an astonishing gift for creating characters that take up residence in readers’ heads.” ~ Lisa Christie
You Could Make This Place Beautiful by Maggie Smith (11 April 2023). With a title lifted from the last line of her poem Good Bones, Maggie Smith has fashioned an incredibly moving portrait of a life in which a marriage disintegrates, and instead of skipping to the part where everyone is OK, she explores the extremely personal aspects of her heartache and betrayal. In doing so, she does not let her either ex-husband or herself off the hook for the ending of their vows and their life together. She spends a more than a few pages talking about how betrayal "is neat and ... absolves you from having to think about your own failures... Because no matter what else happened - if you argued about work or kids, if you lacked intimacy, or ... it is as if the other person doused everything with lighter fluid and threw a match." In her discussions, she does not absolve her ex for the betrayal, or whitewash either of their actions leading up to her discovery of his betrayal. She talks candidly about the affects of divorce on her kids and their need for privacy. She discusses therapy, poetry, emotional and physical affairs, how secrets harm everyone and are so hard to manage, and how the division of labor is not the thing that ends marriages, but it certainly does not help. If you ever wondered what divorce feels like, or if you would like to help someone you love who is experiencing the ending of a partnership or honestly any type of grief, or if you would like to see how someone manages to feel all the feels and not deny all the hurt still keeps moving, this book is amazing. Smith is a poet, so each word seems perfectly chosen. The "chapters" are short and easily digested. And even though the pain is not remotely circumvented, hope permeates the entire book. My advanced copy (thank you Allie of Still North Books & Bar) looks like a journal as I added a written conversation between Maggie Smith and myself as phrases struck home. Even if this seems depressing or somehow something you - a happily partnered person will never need, this book has wisdom and gorgeous prose for everyone. ~ Lisa Christie
Heartbreak by Florence Williams (2022). In keeping with today's unexpected theme of heartache and love, for those of you who need a book to read today (anticipation is not for everyone), and for those of you who enjoy books laden with scientific facts and interesting interviews with researchers and scientists, Heartbreak will not disappoint. In fact, this was declared a Smithsonian Best Science Book of 2022. Williams is a journalist by training and vocation, and when her 25 year old marriage unexpectedly (to her) falls apart (her husband may or may not be having an affair, but definitely does not want to be married to her anymore) she finds herself emotionally reeling and physically ill. So she turns to her profession and sets out to find a rational answer to her reactions to her heartache. In doing so, she finds herself rafting a river, hiking with survivors of sex trafficking, getting her genetic markers tested, speaking with experts in neurogenomic (had to look this up - the study of how the genome of an organism influences the development and function of its nervous system) research laboratories, and undergoing electric shock, among other things. She discovers that one often makes really really bad decisions in the pain of heartache, and the scientific reasons why. She explores loneliness, health, betrayal, love, joy, and life with candor, wit, and a lot of science. ~ Lisa Christie
Last week we finished two books that could not be more different; yet, we recommend them both. We hope one of them fits the mood for your next great read. And, if they don't strike your fancy, please stay tuned for more options in our other reviews as 2023 progresses.
The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman (2022). The third in this series is just as charming as the first; maybe more so as you now know and are invested in the main characters: Elizabeth - a possible MI6 operative, Joyce - former nurse turned narrator of the stories, Ron - the former trade union leader, and Ibrahim - a retired therapist. This time, they are investigating the disappearance of a TV newscaster whose body was never found, and of course a few other things such as romance. Read these if for no other reason than to enjoy time spent with 80something characters who are enjoying life to its fullest. I agree wholeheartedly with what the New York Times wrote, " Enjoy!
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O'Farrell (2022). It's Florence in the 1500s and Lucrezia, daughter of the grand duke, is happily living her life - painting, sketching, checking out her father's zoo, and basically ignoring her siblings while spying on court life. Then one of her older sisters dies, and Lucrezia is substituted as bride for her sister's fiance. The novel's question then becomes is her new husband the playful person he appeared to be in her father's court or a manipulative powerful man with his own agenda - one that does not consider Lucrezia's desires? The portrait from the title is one Lucrezia sits for to preserve her image for posterity and comes to represent both her freedom and her confinement. I will be honest, it took me a few pages to enjoy this tale, but at some point I was enjoying living in Italy many centuries ago and was fascinated by how things have changed and not changed for women, and contemplating the chasms that can appear between life partners, with or without malicious intent. As the Washington Post stated in their review of this book, "O’Farrell pulls out little threads of historical detail to weave this story of a precocious girl sensitive to the contradictions of her station . . . You may know the history, and you may think you know what’s coming, but don’t be so sure. O’Farrell and Lucrezia, with her ‘crystalline, righteous anger,’ will always be one step ahead of you.. . . O’Farrell [is] one of the most exciting novelists alive.” Enjoy.