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Posts Tagged ‘Gail Godwin’

Summertime, and the reading’s whatever you want it to be. Now that bookstores and libraries are reopening, it’s time to open all the books we missed.

It wasn’t until this past week when Oprah named James McBride’s Deacon King Kong (Riverhead Penguin/library e-book) her latest book club pick that I realized I forgot to write about it back in March. That was early stay-home days, and all I did was read, read, read.  McBride’s lively novel transported me to a housing project in south Brooklyn in September 1969, where in front of God and everybody, a crotchety, inebriated church deacon known as Sportcoat shoots the ear off Deems Clemens, former baseball prodigy turned drug dealer. What has led Sportcoat to this moment and the repercussions that follow affects the entire community of churchgoers, cleaning ladies, transit workers, shopkeepers, mobsters and police. It involves moonshine, free cheese, marching ants, hidden treasure and a missing Christmas Club fund, and it includes characters as colorful as their names: Pudgy Fingers, Hot Sausage, Sister Gee, Elephant, Lightbulb, cousins Nanette and Sweet Corn. It’s a lot of fun and full of heart.

Other spring books of note are Gail Godwin’s Old Lovegood Girls (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley) and Richard Ford’s Sorry for Your Trouble (Ecco/HarperCollins, digital galley). The latter collection of short stories features older men pondering the past and contending with the present, the death of old friends, the loss of wives and lovers. Some memories are tinged with regret, while others are more rueful about choices made long ago. In the novella-length, “The Run of Yourself, “ a widower has a surprising encounter with a much-younger woman, while in “Nothing to Declare,” a married attorney recognizes his first love in a New Orleans hotel. Godwin’s pensive novel unfolds elliptically as a successful writer looks back at the complicated, 40-year friendship with her college roommate and how it has influenced her career. Feron Hood, secretive about her alcoholic mother and abusive stepfather, first meets Merry Jellicoe, a confident tobacco heiress, in 1958 at a Southern college for women. They bond over a shared writing class, but Merry has to leave Lovegood when her parents die in an accident. Letters and sporadic meetings over the years keep them connected, and Merry’s first published short story spurs competitive Feron to finish her novel. There are secrets and envy on both sides, though, and questions of appropriation arise. Secondary characters such as Feron’s gentlemanly uncle and Merry’s farm manager play significant roles.

Highlighting issues of race, gender and identity, Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (Riverhead, purchased hardcover) could hardly be more timely, but it’s also a timeless story of sisters, mothers, daughters and how the past shapes the present. Identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes grow up in a small Louisiana community of light-skinned blacks, but run away to New Orleans at 16. Townspeople thought they’d soon return. “Instead after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.” Bennett follows the twins’ separate lives, focusing first on Desiree, who does return home in 1968 with her dark-skinned daughter Jude. Meanwhile, Stella lives as a white woman in California, raising a blonde daughter Kennedy who is unaware of her mother’s past. Jude and Kennedy improbably intersect as young women, thus reconnecting the twins. The narrative’s drama owes a lot to coincidence, but Bennett writes beautifully about self-discovery and reinvention, secrets and choices, twinship and kinship.

Is every day starting to seem the same? Time to inject some suspense. I started with Lucy Foley’s twisty The Guest List (Morrow, purchased hardcover), which features a fancy celebrity wedding on a storm-tossed Island off the coast of Ireland. The closed circle of suspects gives off Agatha Christie-vibes, but while the identity of the eventual victim is obvious, that of the killer may catch you off guard. There’s no doubt a devious serial killer known as the Shrike is stalking women in the pages of Michael Connelly’s Fair Warning (Little, Brown, library e-book), but it takes the dogged determination of investigative reporter Jack McEvoy to figure out the scary motive behind the murders. McEvoy has come down in the world since he starred in The Poet and The Scarecrow; he now works for an online consumer web site because newspapers are expiring right and left, which is more than sad. Heather Young’s atmospheric thriller The Distant Dead (HarperCollins, digatal galley) is set in a sad desert town, where an orphaned schoolboy discovers the charred corpse of his middle-school math teacher in the desolate hills. The book is layered with mysteries, past and present, as history teacher Nora Wheaton soon discovers. For a more upbeat tale, turn to Riviera Gold (Ballantine, digital galley) as Laurie R. King continues the adventures of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. We last saw them in Venice in Island of the Mad, socializing with Cole Porter and his crowd; now Mary’s off to the Riviera and Monaco, where she is surprised to find former housekeeper Mrs. Hudson filling in for Gerald and Sara Murphy’s regular nanny. Still, glimpses of the rich and famous are of little interest when Mrs. Hudson’s checkered past catches up with her and she’s accused of murder. Russell and Holmes to the rescue!

 

 

 

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I’m on summer vacation, and it’s lovely, with family weddings, old friends, South Carolina peaches, and books, books, books.

Oh, The Essex Serpent (HarperCollins, digital galley). I first was captivated by the stunning cover with its intricate William Morris-inspired design, then seduced by the contents. Sarah Perry’s sweeping Victorian tale with its Gothic shadings reminded me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman by way of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Angels and Insects. Also Bronte, Hardy, Dickens, Stoker. And yet this novel of ideas, of science and superstition, love and friendship, is also imaginative and original.

In 1893 London, Cora Seaborne makes for an unconventional 19th-century heroine, a well-off widow whose independent spirit and intellectual curiosity were suppressed by an abusive older husband. Now she gleefully exchanges widow’s weeds for a man’s tweed coat and boots, the better for tramping the marshy Essex coast in search of fossils. She’s also intrigued by rumors of the return of the Essex Serpent, a mythical winged beast that villagers blame for recent drownings, missing livestock and ruined crops. Cora dreams of discovering a lost species, some kind of dinosaur, but the local vicar, William Ransome, dismisses the serpent as pure superstition and sermonizes against it. The two strike up a passionate friendship despite their differences and Ransome’s devotion to his consumptive wife and three children. Perry excels in evoking the wonders of the natural world, and breathes life in all of her characters, from a cantankerous codger to a brilliant surgeon to Cora’s autistic son and his socialist nanny. It is the latter who wisely states, “There are no ordinary lives.” Oh, what an extraordinary book!

At one point in Gail Godwin’s pensive new novel Grief Cottage (Bloomsbury, digital galley), 11-year-old Marcus sees a boy his own age coming toward him. He is startled that the sturdy, suntanned youth is his own mirrored reflection, and no wonder. He is no longer the pale, bookish orphan sent to stay with his great-aunt on a South Carolina island after his mother’s sudden death. Not that Marcus isn’t still haunted by grief and loss, and also, perhaps, by the ghost of a boy who disappeared during a hurricane 50 years ago. Marcus senses his presence in the ruin of Grief Cottage, which has been immortalized in Aunt Charlotte’s atmospheric paintings. She is laconic, solitary, prickly and drinks to ward off her own demons, and she seems an unlikely guardian for a growing boy. But the two come to depend on one another, especially after an accident turns Charlotte into a temporary invalid unable to paint. Marcus is also befriended by an island old-timer who restores antique cars, the head of the local sea-turtle watch, and the wealthy widow next-door mourning the loss of her grown son.

Although set in the early years of this century, Grief Cottage glints with nostalgia for lost people and times. Part of it is the past-haunted Lowcountry setting; Godwin borrows from Pawley’s Island and Isle of Palms to create her own island, where the shifting sands thwart developers. Part of it, too, is an undercurrent of mystery. Who is Marcus’s father? Why did Aunt Charlotte leave home long ago? What happened to Grief Cottage’s inhabitants when Hurricane Hazel howled ashore? Such questions animate this haunting summer story.

 

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floraIt’s the summer of 1945 and, in a big old house in a North Carolina mountain town, 10-year-old Helen is under the guardianship of her 22-year-old cousin Flora.

From just that outline, I thought I knew what would happen in Gail Godwin’s new book Flora: A Novel (Bloomsbury, digital galley via NetGalley). Young Helen would be dazzled by the sophistication of her older cousin and would want to emulate her in all things, right up to the fateful moment of betrayal when Flora’s feet of clay would be revealed. After all, similar plots have driven other coming-of-age novels, including Anne Rivers Siddons’ Nora, Nora, Jill McCorkle’s Ferris Beach, even Godwin’s 1984 The Finishing School.

Well, I was wrong, way wrong, but Godwin gets everything right in her lovely, nuanced story of girls and guardians and the ghosts who haunt our hearts. Helen Anstruther, a writer in her 70s, looks back to when she was “going on 11,” and still reckoning with the recent death of her beloved grandmother who has raised her since her own mother died years ago. Now her father, the high school principal, has gone off to do secret war work in Oak Ridge and has imported his wife’s cousin Flora from Alabama to look after Helen.

Helen — precocious, imaginative, a bit bratty — is patently disdainful of country mouse Flora, an effusive pleaser who wears her heart on her sleeve. And there is no escape — the two are confined to the house and yard because of a polio outbreak, their only visitors the minister, the housekeeper Mrs. Jones, and the ex-soldier Finn who delivers groceries. Helen is the first to meet Finn and hear his history, and she’s increasingly possessive of his attention, even fantasizing the day when her father returns, Flora goes back to Alabama to teach school, and Finn moves into the house. He’ll be able to choose from the rooms named after “the Recoverers,” the former TB sufferers and ex-mental patients who once lived there under the care of Helen’s doctor grandfather.

Godwin seamlessly blends summer set pieces — Flora and Helen playing “Fifth Grade,” the two entertaining Finn for dinner, Helen talking books and ghosts to Mrs. Jones  — with the rich backstory of family history. Helen clings to Flora’s comments about the mother she doesn’t remember, and upbraids Flora when she unwittingly welcomes a visit from a relative her grandmother despised. But the outside world doesn’t really intrude until news of the Hiroshima bombing arrives on the eve of Helen’s birthday, when Helen herself initiates the events whose devastating consequences follow her the rest of her life.

Years later, she turns that summer over in her mind, remembers Flora, reflects on remorse — and writes this fine book.

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Trust me. In spite of a terrible title that makes it sound like a tawdry bodice-ripper, Unfinished Desires by Gail Godwin is a wonderful, layered novel of girls and women, friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Also, adolescent longing, spiritual yearning, thwarted dreams and long memories. No wonder Godwin couldn’t come up with a more appealing title, although I’m leaning toward “The Reckoning of the Red Nun”  or “At Mount Saint Gabriel’s.” 

Mount Saint Gabriel’s is a Catholic girls’ school in the North Carolina mountains, and near the turn of this century, Mother Suzanne Ravenel, 85 and blind, is dictating a history of the school in a tape recorder at the behest of “old girls,” her former students. The nun was once a student, too, so there are her schooldays and friends to revisit, including her writing of “The Red Nun,” a play about the school’s founding.

More troubling, though, is how she will recall “the toxic year” of 1951-52, when Mother Malloy came to teach the ninth-grade class ruled over by Tildy Stratton and her chosen friends. Tildy is the niece of Ravenel’s best friend, who died young, leaving behind a twin sister (Tildy’s mom) who detests Ravenel. Tildy’s new best friend, orphaned Chloe, is the daughter of another “old girl” as well as a cousin.

Such family relationships complicate the already entangled plot and timelines. As in such previous novels as A Southern Family and Father Melancholy’s Daughter, Godwin is guilty of trying to make too many angels dance on the head of a pin. The book sprawls and meanders; it is, as my friend Pre reported, “dense, dense, dense.”

But we agree that perseverance pays off as Tildy’s revival of “The Red Nun” brings revelation and reckoning to all involved. Yes, the male characters are shadows next to their fully rounded female counterparts, and are duly relegated to supporting roles. Sisterhood, in all its forms, remains the focus in this rewarding tale.

I am not Catholic, nor did I ever go to boarding school. But Godwin’s fine, nuanced writing and sense of place, combined with my own memories of summer camp and college, made me feel like an “old girl” pondering her revisionist history of Mount Saint Gabriel’s.

Open Book: I borrowed Unfinished Desires (Random House) from the library and returned it on time.

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