‘Bad Marie’ by Marcy Dermansky

Should you choose to read Marcy Dermansky’s polarizing Bad Marie (and I recommend that you do!), get ready for a wild ride. Anti-heroine Marie was the source of much pity, rage, sympathy and other varying emotions as I cruised through this fast-paced and unpredictable novel. But regardless of your final opinion of titular bad girl, Bad Marie teaches a lesson in love that is worth the read.

For a thirty-year-old ex-con, Marie’s life isn’t so bad. She’s managed to secure comfortable employment as the live-in nanny to a childhood friend’s daughter, Caitlin, and spends her days with the two-year-old taking lavender-scented bubble baths and eating copious amounts of macaroni and cheese. Unfortunately, however, Marie and Ellen, Caitlin’s mother, have a complicated relationship, and when Marie gets herself fired, it comes as no surprise that she doesn’t take it in stride. Marie promptly seduces Ellen’s husband and the two take off for Paris with the toddler in tow. Thus begins the licentious adventure of Bad Marie.

Unlike some readers, I never grew to love Marie, but I think I ultimately understood her. Certainly Marie is dealt a tough lot: her mother is unloving and her relationship with Ellen is fraught with envy and resentment. However, instead of overcoming her predicament, she wallows in it, using it as an excuse for bad behavior.

At first, Marie’s relationship with Caitlin isn’t much different. Marie frequently drinks on the job and disregards Ellen’s rules. But then, sensitive to the toddler’s unabashed dependence on her, Marie’s love for the child takes over. Though she puts Caitlin’s interests ahead of her own begrudgingly at first, Marie begins to do it instinctively and then tragically as the novel comes to its close.

In addition to the endearing Marie/Caitlin relationship, I also enjoyed the fish-out-of-water motif that permeates Bad Marie. In nearly every setting save prison, Marie is the outcast. As a child, she was a charity case in the company of Ellen’s family; in college, she was the only student that didn’t understand Ulysses; and as an adult, she’s a felon living with successful New York professionals. Dermansky effectively symbolizes Marie’s black sheep status as the English-speaking American struggles to communicate with both friends and strangers in their native lands. As a result, Marie’s relationships with these characters weaken irrevocably.

Marcy Dermansky’s gem Bad Marie is a quick, but memorable, read. I look forward to hearing more from this quirky writer in the future.

‘Main Street’ by Sinclair Lewis

My, it has been a while! After a long break without writing (but not without reading) I am back at it and kicking it off with a review of Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, a re-read and favorite of mine.

Main Street was originally published in 1920, but owing to Lewis’s powerful gift for observation, the novel truly resonates with the modern reader. Main Street opens with the marriage of its protagonist, Carol, to Dr. Will Kennicott, general practitioner to Gopher Prairie, an archetypal Midwest Small Town (capitals intended). Upon her arrival to “G.P.” Carol is brimming with ideas to “improve” the town but finds herself continually thwarted by the townspeople’s penchant for pettiness and resistance to change.

Unfortunately, Carol does not rise to the challenge. She is unfocused in her efforts to reform Gopher Prairie and lacks the resolve to persist when she encounters adversity. Even worse, she takes each defeat personally, closing herself off from potentially meaningful relationships with her neighbors.

Though I often found Carol’s lack of focus frustrating, I couldn’t help but sympathize with her. Fiction oftentimes deals with the adventures of the exceptional, the go-getters who possess the fearlessness required to accomplish their goals and encourage real progress. While these characters are inspiring and interesting to read about, the real world is full of far more Carol Kennicotts. The rest of us, like Carol, often have a vision of the world we would like to see but find the path to creating it a bit opaque.

One of the chief criticisms plaguing Main Street’s reputation is its allegedly unsatisfying ending. I admit that beginning with Carol’s excursion to D.C., the plot does feel a bit rushed and the conclusion a little hasty. Despite that, I found several points of encouragement. Carol finally seems to recognize where she can be effective and find meaningful purpose: she can provide her children with the resources they need to become open-minded adults and, more impressively, begins to open her own mind to the beauty there is in being an active member of a marriage, family and community. There is a powerful moment at the end of the book when it occurs to Carol that not only is her husband an individual with his own world view, but so is Ethel Clark, a woman she previously dismissed as simply a small town wife in need of a social awakening. Recognizing this is a huge breakthrough in Carol’s development as a character, and a huge relief for me, the sympathetic reader.

The reason I love this book so much is Lewis’s clear representation of what it means to be a human being, whether it’s 1920 or nearly 100 years later in 2012. Lewis gets at the root of why we act the way we do and, to be frank, flays us alive for it. Though it isn’t always pretty, seeing oneself on the page the way one can in Main Street is strangely comforting. We aren’t perfect, but at least we aren’t alone.

‘The Blind Assassin’ by Margaret Atwood

There are authors who are great storytellers (Larry Watson), expert writers (Jonathan Franzen) and innovative stylists (Jennifer Egan) and then there are those rare authors who do all three: Margaret Atwood. Atwood’s Booker Prizewinner, The Blind Assassin is an eclectic novel that highlights her expertise in all three of these categories.

There are three stories at work in The Blind Assassin: the present day narration of Iris Chase, the heiress of a once prominent Depression era industrial giant, a science fiction novel-within-a-novel composed by two anonymous paramours and finally, newspaper clippings and correspondence, providing an unbiased perspective and the story that unfolds. The novel opens in the late 1990s as Iris, at age 83, reflects on the events leading up to her sister’s mysterious death shortly after the end of World War II.

Interspersed between the page-turning sections dealing with Iris’s youth and young adulthood is the nearly equally engaging ‘The Blind Assassin’, the novel-within-a-novel. At its most basic level, ‘The Blind Assassin’ is the bizarre story of the inhabitants of the planet Zycron as they ward off alien invaders. The paltry tale is devised by two unnamed lovers as they rendezvous in various rundown cafes and hotel rooms. Eventually, to the reader’s delight, through Atwood’s expert storytelling, the identities of the illicit couple are revealed.

While the story itself keeps the pages turning, Atwood’s writing shines throughout. In fact, not only is her style superb, but insightfully quotable as well. With Iris as her proxy, Atwood gives voice to various axioms of growing up and growing old. At one point, Iris questions her motive to document the story of her family’s demise lamenting, “Why is it we want so badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we’re still alive. We wish to assert our existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants.”

Published in 2000, the format of The Blind Assassin is ahead of its time. Not only does Atwood weave two apparently unrelated plots into the same story, she tastefully inserts fictional newspaper clippings circa 1930 into the text as well. These clippings are not only fun to read in their period style, but they serve as well to provide an objective take on unreliable narrator Iris’s version of the events.

I haven’t always had great luck reading Booker Prizewinning novels (I still can’t seem to get through The Finkler Question), but Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin makes up for it. A fascinating story, great writing and innovative structure made for a great read that I highly recommend.

‘The Paris Wife’ by Paula McLain

I’m on the fence about Paula McLain’s bestselling new novel The Paris Wife. On the plus side, the subject matter was fascinating. McLain’s novel is the fictional memoir of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. Because Hemingway himself documented this time period so assiduously in The Sun Also Rises and later in A Moveable Feast, it seemed at times that McLain merely had to add the dialogue to make the story come alive. With all of these great sources to work with, however, comes the stark revelation that the characters of the novel were not really characters at all; instead, they revealed themselves to be deeply flawed human beings. Because of this, I struggled to sympathize with anyone in this otherwise enjoyable historical novel.

In college, my Survey of American Literature Post-1870 class was by far my favorite. It was in this class that I learned to love the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, John Dos Passos, and other luminaries of the Lost Generation. Therefore, to read a novel rich with images of Jazz Age Paris like the Closerie des Lilas—the famous café in which Hemingway did much of his writing—and the Dingo Bar—an oft-mentioned nightclub frequented by the Hemingways’ smart set—was a treat I was happy to indulge in.

Unfortunately, however, while I can appreciate what I think McLain aimed to do with The Paris Wife—add depth to a woman history has reduced to “Hemingway’s Paris Wife”—McLain ultimately proves Hadley to be a woman who embraced convention despite being married to a man famous for rejecting it. For all of the melodramatic musings about the “great love” that existed between Ernest and Hadley, it seemed clear to me that the fact that the marriage lasted a brief five years should serve as a testament to the poor match that it was. Hadley, however, wanted her marriage to last and went to great and desperate lengths to ensure that it did (I’m referring to the absurd “one hundred day challenge” here!). Unfortunately, Hadley’s desperation drags on a little too long and by the end, I couldn’t help but feel glad to be rid of the protagonist I originally wanted to root for.

While the premise of The Paris Wife is alluring, Hadley’s character development ultimately left me feeling frustrated with the novel. With that said, The Paris Wife is still worth a look for fans of Hemingway and the other famous artists of the Lost Generation.

‘American Boy’ by Larry Watson

Larry Watson’s new novel American Boy is a classic coming-of-age story. Despite the fact that many novelists before him have worked to perfect this theme, Watson’s take, for me, was especially resonant with its classically Midwestern setting and characters. This, coupled with Watson’s wonderful sense of language, made for a great winter read.

Matthew Garth is Midwestern to the core, born and raised in the small town of Willow Falls, Minnesota. After the death of his father several years before the action of the novel begins, the Dunbars, Matt’s best friend Johnny’s family, comprise Matt’s second home. Like Johnny, Matt idolizes Rex Dunbar, Johnny’s father and the town’s respected doctor. In fact, Johnny and Matt spend much of their time following the doctor around, gleaning information about the profession as they aspire to become physicians themselves.

Then, on Thanksgiving Day 1962, Matt and Johnny volunteer to help Dr. Dunbar locate a girl who has been shot and subsequently change their lives forever. Once the girl, Louisa Lindahl, is found, the doctor treats her wound and the Dunbars invite her to live with them as she recovers. Matt quickly develops an intense crush on the mysterious girl and as a result, becomes obsessively involved with the Dunbars. As his relationship with the family intensifies, Matt painfully discovers that the Dunbars are far from deserving of the pedestal he has placed them on.

For all of its poignant insight on American life and the human condition, American Boy is also a bona fide page-turner. The story of Matt and the Dunbars is compelling and well paced, a testament to Watson’s superior story-telling ability. Complementing the action of the story is the language. Watson evokes Minnesota’s barren winter climate with his clear, stark language and uncomplicated imagery. Altogether these achievements make for a novel I was tempted to read in one sitting.

Though the coming-of-age story is nothing new in American letters, it is always a treat when an accomplished author offers his take on the motif. Larry Watson is one such writer and has certainly gained a fan in me with American Boy.

‘A Meaningful Life’ by L.J. Davis

Every once and a while I stumble across a book that is so eerily relatable I can hardly put it down. L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life—a story of “redemption through real estate”—is one of those books. The theme of stagnation permeates throughout the story, warning its readers of the consequences of passivity.

Lowell Lake has just turned thirty and has come to the stark realization that he hasn’t done anything remarkable with his life. He recounts an aimless youth that yielded him a Stanford education (the story of its financing is one of many very funny sections of the book), a mismatched marriage and a big move to New York City. Lowell’s dreams of writing a novel are dashed shortly after the move so he takes a post at a plumbers’ trade magazine and spends his next nine years simply going through the motions. It is only when Lowell comes across a dilapidated old mansion in Brooklyn that he becomes proactive with his life. Lowell risks his life savings and sacrifices his relationship with his wife—or rather as he comes to realize, his relationship with his marriage—to restore the mansion to its former glory.

Once the novel hits its groove, its message to me was clear: be proactive with your life, or suffer the consequence of unhappiness. Lowell lets life happen to him. He proves to be competent enough to graduate college and charming enough to find a spouse, but that is where his accomplishments end. In fact, Lowell’s post-collegiate life is so uneventful that the author doesn’t have to waste his time remarking on it. However, once Lowell takes himself out of his comfort zone and throws himself into the renovation of the house in Brooklyn, the sources of his unhappiness become clear: he married the wrong woman and pursued the wrong profession. However, instead of addressing his mistakes, Lowell acts out in a different way, making for quite the surprise ending.

While there are a few sections of the book that come close to dragging, Davis’s expert style and brutally hilarious observations keep the pages turning. Even when I noticed myself beginning to lose interest during the Lakes’ initial tour of the mansion, Davis had me laughing out loud at the “soul-food” comment and Lowell’s subsequent mortification.

Also, while I found Lowell to be frustratingly realistic and relatable, unfortunately none of the other characters rise above the level of caricature. Lowell’s wife (her first name is rarely used) is nothing more than a materialistic nag and her parents the stereotypical difficult in-laws. While the novel is short enough that the lack of character depth doesn’t take away much from the overall effect of the story, the book would have certainly benefited from a better-developed supporting cast.

L.J. Davis’s A Meaningful Life is a great read from the treasure trove that is New York Review Books. Their site is highly recommended for anyone at a loss for what to read next!

‘The Sense of an Ending’ by Julian Barnes

You know you’ve read a good book when you care enough about it has to say that you disagree with it. I’ve never read Julian Barnes before, but I’m very glad I changed this with The Sense of an Ending. Winning the 2011 Man Booker Prize for its “thoughtfulness”, The Sense of an Ending is a short novel that forces the reader to review his/her own life through the lens of the story.

After a brief period of excitement in adolescence, Tony Webster glides complacently through life. He marries a nice, predictable woman, finds a decent career, fathers a healthy, if unexceptional, daughter, amicably divorces and quietly retires. Rather than considering himself a “coward” in life, the now middle-aged Tony contends that he possesses “an instinct for survival, for self-¬preservation”. However, when his college girlfriend’s mother, referred to as Mrs. Ford, bequeaths to him a modest sum of money and the rights to an old school friend’s diary, Tony begins to question his reading of the past and the decisions he has made.

Much of the narrative of The Sense of an Ending is tinged with regret. Tony clearly considers his adolescence and college years spent with fellow idealists Colin, Alex, Adrian and Veronica his high point. He fondly and vividly remembers philosophically charged exchanges with teachers and discourses on living an existential life with his friends, all the while glossing over his relationship with his now ex-wife and the birth of his daughter. Even when the mystery of Mrs. Ford’s bequest begins to unravel, Tony never ceases to regret the course of his own life. Frustratingly, even at the end, Tony is incapable of finding meaning or beauty in the choices he has made and the life he has lead.

My frustration with the protagonist in The Sense of an Ending is the reason I enjoyed this book so much. I expected that once Tony uncovered the truth of the events of his youth, he would come to appreciate his own life and relationships. When he did not, I found myself dissatisfied and had to ask myself why this was the case. I love that Barnes leads his readers on a journey through Tony’s life for 163 pages and then asks them to continue that journey for themselves when the story ends. The Man Booker Prize is much deserved for this “thoughtful” novel.