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Posts Tagged ‘Elizabeth Kelly’

jonathanDante is a smart Border Collie. Sissy is a sweet Cocker Spaniel. Jonathan is a daydreaming Almost Grown-up who appears to be on the right track to adulthood: New York apartment, ad agency job, college sweetheart now fiance. But appearances, of course, are deceiving. The apartment is an illegal sublet, the job is soul-deadening, the fiance is all wrong for him. Still, it isn’t until Dante and Sissy enter Jonathan’s life that the recent arts school grad begins to question his chosen path. “Jonathan came home one day from work to find the dogs talking about him.”

That’s the first line of Meg Rosoff’s rom-com Jonathan Unleashed (Viking, review copy), but this isn’t a talking dog book. Actually, it would be easier for Jonathan if Dante and Sissy conversed like humans. Then Jonathan would know what’s wrong with the pair of canines left in his keeping while his brother is in Dubai for six months. Because Jonathan is sure the dogs are depressed and dissatisfied with life in New York City. He takes them to see the vet Dr. Clare. Doesn’t she think Dante looks angry? Doesn’t Sissy look sad? The vet, herself a dogowner, assures him his dogs are fine. “Dogs tend towards happiness. That’s why humans choose to live with them.”

But this is Jonathan she’s talking to, and it’s going to take him awhile to realize he’s projecting his own mixed feelings on Dante and Sissy. After all, he’s the kind of guy who can wonder about a clam’s inner emotional life, or who upon meeting a pretty cafe owner immediately envisions their marriage and names their three children. He draws comic books in his head. And then he somehow agrees to having his wedding to Julie live-streamed by a bridal magazine.

All this is fine fodder for a romp of a book, and Rosoff pulls it off, despite some unlikely contrivances and coincidences. Dante and Sissy turn out to be rescue dogs extraordinaire, the kind who save humans from themselves. Ah, who’s a good dog?

miracleElizabeth Kelly’s engaging The Miracle on Monhegan Island (Norton, digital galley) really is a talking dog book in that it’s ably narrated by a three-year-old Shih Tzu named Ned. He finds himself a member of the wildly dysfunctional Monahan family when black sheep son Spike plucks him from the back seat of a Mercedes and carries him home to Maine as a gift for his 12-year-old son Hally, whom he hasn’t seen in several years.

In short order, Ned is introduced — and introduces us — to Spike’s father Pastor Ragner, who has his own religious sect; his artistic brother Hugh; and to young Hally, whose vision of a Woman in White on the cliffs causes further family upheaval. Pastor Ragner immediately thinks that Hally has seen the Virgin Mary, and uses this news to attract new followers. But Spike is afraid that Hally’s vision signals the onset of the mental illness that afflicted his mother after he was born and is aghast as throngs are drawn to the island. Add in a stalker with murder in mind, and the story becomes darker.

Kelly, however, is an insightful and witty writer — The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is one of my favorites. By having Ned observe and chronicle events, she can explore such weighty issues as family, faith and mental illness with a light touch. Her canine narrator makes for quite a canny tale.

 

 

 

 

 

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camperdowns“It was June 4, 1972. The day started out peacefully enough, a creamy soft Sunday afternoon, a sweet do-nothing day. My mother called them tea-finger sandwich days. A day with the crust removed.”

This is Riddle James Camperdown looking back to the Cape Cod summer she was 12-almost-13, when her liberal father “Camp” was running for Congress with the passive-agressive help of her mother, icy blonde actress Greer Foley. This is when charismatic Michael Devlin, Camp’s former friend and Greer’s former fiance, re-enters their lives with his handsome college-age son Harry. This is when 15-year-old Charlie Devlin disappears. This is The Last Summer of the Camperdowns (Liveright/W.W. Norton, digital galley), the truly wonderful second novel by Elizabeth Kelly that I already have read twice and will probably re-read every summer.

Says Riddle near the book’s beginning: “I’m thirty three years old and the memory of that long-ago summer remains as alive to me as something I can reach out and touch. . .If only. If only I could somehow poke a hole through time and space and reach into that old house and shake that girl, slap her silly, tell her to shout out from the rooftops what she knew.”

Because Riddle knows what happened to young Charlie in the stables of a neighbor, although she tells herself she doesn’t, especially when around Gula, the sinister stable manager. Still, there’s a lot that precocious Riddle doesn’t know as regards her parents, the Devlins, and several secrets from the past. It’s The Great Gatsby meets Mad Men (Greer is sooo Betty Draper but wittier and wiser), and Kelly trods familiar coming-of-age territory. But her sharp, evocative writing makes The Last Summer of the Camperdowns seem singular. She describes one supporting character as “Slim and narrow, looking like something Evelyn Waugh might have doodled on a napkin during a lull at a dinner party.”  And the conversations among the characters, especially the Camperdowns, animate Riddle’s observations:   

“Did anyone ever tell the truth about anything? The adults around me loomed like tall trees that resisted climbing, pendulous, dark and mysterious. I was lost in their forest. I was lost to myself.”

yonahThea Atwell, the narrator of Anton DiSclafani’s ambitious first novel, The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls (Riverhead, digital galley) also wonders about the reliability of adults. Looking back to 1930 and the Great Depression, Thea recalls her 15-year-old “confused, wronged” self exiled to an exclusive girls’ school in the North Carolina mountains after a scandalous incident with a boy on her family’s Florida citrus estate.

Thea witholds the details of the incident, parceling them out in flashbacks from her Yonahlossee narrative so as to sustain suspense. But much can be guessed at because DiSclafani isn’t nearly as subtle with her hints as she is with her lyrical evocation of time and place. Thea, home-schooled with her twin brother Sam, initially feels like an outsider among the wealthy Southern debutantes, but she aligns herself with popular Sissy and her riding skills impress even the resident equestrian-goddess. She also gives riding lessons to the headmaster’s young daughters, which allows her more time with the handsome headmaster.

DiSclafani is better with girls and horses than she is with men and boys, and so Thea’s relationship with her classmates and horses is more richly delineated than her romances. “There was so much of the world to see, and most of us had never held a boy’s hand. We wanted to do more than that, anyway, we wanted boys to hold not just our hands but all of us, gather us into their sturdy arms and ring our slippery curls around their thick but tender fingers.”

But as much as Thea recklessly plays at desire and grapples with sexuality, she eventually realizes that knowing oneself begins at home and that there is plenty of blame to go around back in her beloved Florida. “Danger presented itself, every girl knew, from within the family — your father’s mistress; mother’s thorny relationship with her mother-in-law, your grandmother; the first cousin who had tried to kill himself. But we were no one, nothing, without our families.”

A year at Yonahlossee gives Thea the distance she needs to become someone in her own right, to go home again. And to leave by choice.

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