Audiobook Review: The Comeback by Lily Chu

Title: The Comeback
Author: Lily Chu
Narrator: Phillipa Soo
Publisher: Audible Originals
Publication date: July 14, 2022
Print length: n/a
Audio length: 12 hours 14 minutes
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Audible download
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Who is Ariadne Hui?

• Laser-focused lawyer diligently climbing the corporate ladder
• The “perfect” daughter living out her father’s dream
• Shocking love interest of South Korea’s hottest star

Ariadne Hui thrives on routine. So what if everything in her life is planned down to the minute: That’s the way she likes it. If she’s going to make partner in Toronto’s most prestigious law firm, she needs to stay focused at all times.

But when she comes home after yet another soul-sucking day to find an unfamiliar, gorgeous man camped out in her living room, focus is the last thing on her mind. Especially when her roommate explains this is Choi Jihoon, her cousin freshly arrived from Seoul to mend a broken heart. He just needs a few weeks to rest and heal; Ari will barely even know he’s there. (Yeah, right.)

Jihoon is kindness and chaos personified, and it isn’t long before she’s falling, hard. But when one wrong step leads to a world-shaking truth, Ari finds herself thrust onto the world stage: not as the competent, steely lawyer she’s fought so hard to become, but as the mystery woman on the arm of a man the entire world claims to know. Now with her heart, her future, and her sense of self on the line, Ari will have to cut through all the pretty lies to find the truth of her relationship…and discover the Ariadne Hui she’s finally ready to be.

I enjoyed last year’s The Stand-In, Lily Chu’s debut, released an Audible Original (and later, as a paperback) — so when I saw that a new Audible novel was being released this year by the same author, and once again with the amazing Phillipa Soo as narrator, naturally I had to grab it! \

The new book, The Comeback, brings some of The Stand-In‘s elements to a fresh story. Once again, we have an ordinary Canadian woman who ends up in the ultimate wish-fulfillment scenario of finding love with one of the world’s biggest stars — in this case, a K-pop idol.

Ariadne is a work-obsessed lawyer whose sole focus is making partner with her conservative, almost-all-white law firm. (She’s dismayed to overhear a coworker describe her as the firm’s “diversity hire”). Ariadne is Canadian born and of Chinese descent, but she constantly finds herself having to explain where she’s from and that no, she doesn’t speak Chinese and was actually born in Toronto. Her father, also a lawyer, is overly invested in Ari’s career and sends her link to business articles on how to impress the boss and how to get ahead.

Ari tells herself that she’s fine and happy. So what if she never actually takes any of the amazing vacations she fantasizes about? Making partner is all that matters!

Or so she thinks… until her orderly life is disrupted when she comes home to find a strange man in her apartment. After a comical misunderstanding (kitchen knives are involvled), she learns that this is Jihoon, her roommate Hannah’s cousin from Korea, who just needs a place to get away and be quiet for a while after a bad break-up. He seems nice enough, and Hannah is her best friend, so Ari agrees, so long as she can keep working around the clock.

But Jihoon is hard not to notice, from the expensive skincare products spread out all over her bathroom counters to the ramen in her kitchen, and their brief daily encounters turn into texting GIFs, sharing food, and eventually, exploring Toronto together. And the more time Ari spends with him, the more they seem to connect. Okay, yes, he’s super hot, but he’s also kind, intelligent, supportive, and interested in Ari in a way no one else has ever been.

Their time together is cut short, first by the early return of Hannah, and then by the arrival of two of Jihoon’s friends, come to bring him home. They’re not just any friends, though — they’re two of the five members of the enormously huge K-pop group Star Loon (Star Lune? Starloon? Can’t tell from listening to an audiobook!). And guess what? It turns out Jihoon is actually their lead singer, stage name Min, whose video Ari had just watched a few days earlier.

Ari is devastated by Jihoon’s lies (lies of omission still count, especially when the truth he hid is “oh, by the way, I’m an idol with millions of obsessed fans”). Although on the verge of falling in love (who is she kidding? she’s already fallen!), Ari is terrified by Jihoon’s fame and lack of privacy, and breaks off their growing relationship as he departs for Korea.

Of course, the story doesn’t end there, and we get to see what happens when Ari travels to Seoul for a work trip, reunites with Jihoon, attends a VIP Starlune concert, and eventually, gets spotted in an intimate moment with Jihoon. Can their love survive her “outing”, especially when “Starries” brand her a “sasaeng” (stalker/obsessed fan)?

This may all sound rather silly, but it’s actually got quite a bit of emotion and thoughtfulness, and is a very engaging, absorbing listen. Ariadne is a wonderful main character, talented and smart, obviously, but with plenty of blind spots. Her single focus on work keeps her from examining just why she wants so badly to please her father, why she’s never reconciled with her free-spirited older sister, and why she wants a career in law in the first place. Once she opens herself up to love and all the messy emotions that go with it, she starts to see how many limits she’s imposed on her own life through her strict devotion to meeting other people’s expectations, and it actually starts to free her enough to consider what she really wants out of life and how she wants to live.

Jihoon is, perhaps, too good to be true. Because yes, he’s a pop idol with his face on everything from cereal boxes to bottled water, and a video of him taking a nap for five minutes has millions of views, but he’s really just a nice, sensitive guy who wants to experience true connection with someone real. He loves his bandmates and his fans and appreciates all of the advantages he’s gotten from becoming an idol, and yet he also yearns to write the music that matters to him, and to spend time with a woman who loves him for himself, not for his manufactured image.

The Comeback is sweet and entertaining, and even thought-provoking. We can dream of a gorgeous celebrity falling for us, but would we really want the constant surveillance and online criticism (which is putting it mildly) that goes with it? Ari’s dilemma and heartache feel real, because yes, she’s fallen for this man, but she’s nowhere near sure she can handle the demands of his public life — not to mention the public shaming that seems headed her way once the company that controls Starlune gets involved in managing the messaging.

As with The Stand-In, the audiobook narration is a treat. Phillipa Soo is terrific voicing Ariadne, and captures the other characters really well too. I have the same complaint here that I did with the previous book, however — this is a first-person story, and in scenes with dialogue, it can be very difficult to tell whether Ari is saying something out loud or whether certain lines are asides that she’s thinking to herself. I’ve heard narrators who’ve managed to change up the delivery/intonation enough to make it clear, but here, it can be confusing, and there’s not always enough context to tell the difference.

Other than that, though, the audiobook is delightful. This is not a heavy story by any means, but it definitely kept my attention — enough that I found myself driving the longer way to my destinations just to get a few more minutes of listening time into my day!

PS – I am not a K-pop fan… but after listening to The Comeback, I think I may need to expand my horizons!

PPS – If you’re as ignorant of K-pop culture as I am (was), check out some basics:

Kpop Idol – Life and Career of Korean Music Artists
2022’s Top K-Pop Artists
50 Most Liked Kpop Videos of 2022

Enjoy!



Audiobook Review: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery

Title: The Blue Castle
Author: L. M. Montgomery
Narrator: Barbara Barnes
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons
Publication date: 1926
Print length: 249 pages
Audio length: 8 hours, 3 minutes
Genre: Classic fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

All her life, Valancy Stirling lived on a quiet little street in an ugly little house and never dared to contradict her domineering mother and her unforgiving aunt. At 29, she’s never been in love, and her only consolation has been the forbidden books of John Foster and her daydreams of the Blue Castle.

Then, one day, she gets a letter and decides that things need to change. For the first time in her life, she does exactly what she wants to and says exactly what she feels. At first, her family thinks she’s gone around the bend, but soon, she discovers a surprising new world, full of love and adventures far beyond her most secret dreams.

The Blue Castle has been on my to-read/to-listen list for several years now. Ever since reading Anne of Green Gables a few years ago (making up for what was clearly a major deficiency in my childhood reading), I’ve been committed to reading more and more by L. M. Montgomery. And while I’ve now read the full Anne series as well as the Emily trilogy, I still hadn’t quite gotten to The Blue Castle… until now.

I associate L. M. Montgomery with writing charming, heartfelt tales about girls whose sense of wonder and imagination enables then to see the world in such a glorious, optimistic light. The Blue Castle, though, is about a grown woman, and I was curious to see how the author presents a story about an adult.

In The Blue Castle, the main character is Valancy Stirling, whose 29th birthday represents a dramatic turning point for her. Valancy lives with her mother and elderly cousin in a stifling, rule-bound, drab house, completely under her mother’s thumb. The family considers Valancy a somewhat pitiable old maid at this point. She’s never been known as a beauty, has paled in comparison with her lovely younger cousin Olivia, and has never been expected to do anything with her life but be obedient, laugh at her uncle’s awful jokes, and be meek all her life.

One her birthday, Valancy decides to secretly see the local doctor about a strange feeling she occasionally gets in her chest. The doctor is forced to rush off due to a family emergency, but days later, she gets a letter from him, regretfully informing her that she has a fatal heart condition and may have months, but certainly no more than a year left to live.

It’s bitter news for Valancy, who mourns not her impending death, but the fact that she has never lived. And so, with nothing left to lose, she decides to throw caution to the wind and finally, better late than never, live a real life.

Her actions and demeanor shock her family, who are convinced that she’s gone “dippy” — and when Valancy crosses what they see as an unforgiveable line, they decide to pretend that she’s dead.

Meanwhile, Valancy finds unexpected joy by embracing a new, adventurous life, seeking out people and places that make her happy, throwing aside society’s rules and soaking in the beauty of the natural world and the pleasure of companionship based on respect and friendship and being open to experience.

I won’t give away too much of the plot. I’d imagine that in 1926, when the book was published, the surprises that come toward the end of the story might truly have been new and unexpected. As a 21st century reader, I absolutely saw most of the twists coming… but that’s okay. The joy is in the journey to get there, not in unraveling the plot points and figuring out just how Valancy’s story might end.

Valancy is a delightful main character, smart and open and loving, and I found her sass and bravery absolutely fabulous, once she makes the decision to remove herself from the rules and drudgery of her former life.

As in other L. M. Montgomery books, the setting is terrific. The Anne and Emily books are all set on Prince Edward Island, but the setting of The Blue Castle is the fictional area of Lake Mistawis, which apparently corresponds to the real Lake Muskoka in Ontario. In particular, Valancy’s home on an island on the lake is my ideal of a perfect little hideaway, simple and warm, surrounding by lakes and forests, and just such a lovely dream location.

The audiobook narration is quite good, capturing the officiousness of Valancy’s various relatives, as well as her own good nature and open attitude. Yes, some of the dialogue and phrases and terms of endearment sound hokey and outdated… but they’re from the 1920s, so of course they seem a little out of place now. Still, it’s a sweet and fast and enjoyable listen, and I’m so glad I finally experienced this lovely story.

And an added positive — I have at least three more of L. M. Montgomery’s books on my shelves! I’m looking forward to reading them all.

The cover of the 1980s edition, which cracks me up. I mean, the sweater tied over the shoulders! Absolutely wrong for the character… but so dorkily delightful all the same.

Series wrap-up: The Emily Starr trilogy by L. M. Montgomery

One of my reading goals for 2021 was to read the Emily trilogy by L. M. Montgomery. Check! I just finished up the 3rd book, and I’m still under Emily’s spell. Here’s my reading wrap-up for this lovely trilogy:

Title: Emily of New Moon
Published: 1923
Length: 339 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Emily Starr never knew what it was to be lonely–until her beloved father died. Now Emily’s an orphan, and her mother’s snobbish relatives are taking her to live with them at New Moon Farm. She’s sure she won’t be happy. Emily deals with stiff, stern Aunt Elizabeth and her malicious classmates by holding her head high and using her quick wit. Things begin to change when she makes friends, with Teddy, who does marvelous drawings; with Perry, who’s sailed all over the world with his father yet has never been to school; and above all, with Ilse, a tomboy with a blazing temper. Amazingly, Emily finds New Moon beautiful and fascinating. With new friends and adventures, Emily might someday think of herself as Emily of New Moon.

Emily of New Moon introduces us to the unforgettable Emily Byrd Starr. Orphaned at age 10, Emily is taken in by her late mother’s side of the family, who disowned her mother years earlier when she eloped with Emily’s father. Suddenly uprooted, Emily settles into life at the beautiful New Moon with her spinster aunts, Elizabeth and Laura, and her impish cousin Jimmy. Despite her heartbreak over losing her father, Emily is soon enchanted by the loveliness of the farm and its surroundings, and settles in — with challenges — to her new home.

Emily is feisty and sensitive, speaks her mind, and doesn’t back down. She’s also highly imaginative and inquisitive, and — like Anne in Anne of Green Gables — delights in imbuing the natural world around her with fanciful names and personalities. For the first time in her life, Emily also has friends and classmates, and gets into wonderful adventures with Ilse, Teddy, and Perry. Most of all, Emily lets her secret ambition to become a “poetess” flourish, and uses every scrap of paper she can find to record her poems and stories.

This is a truly lovely book, very similar to Anne of Green Gables in spirit and tone. The author once again gives us a young girl with a sharp, expressive mind and a will of her own as a main character. The book is full of sweetness and whimsy, but we also feel Emily’s sorrow and pain as she navigates a world that isn’t always kind to her. There are memorable characters and escapades, and as in the author’s other works. Prince Edward Island is brought to life through Emily’s eyes.

Title: Emily Climbs
Published: 1925
Length: 325 pages
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Emily Starr was born with the desire to write. As an orphan living on New Moon Farm, writing helped her face the difficult, lonely times. But now all her friends are going away to high school in nearby Shrewsbury, and her old-fashioned, tyrannical aunt Elizabeth will only let her go if she promises to stop writing! All the same, this is the first step in Emily’s climb to success. Once in town, Emily’s activities set the Shrewsbury gossips buzzing. But Emily and her friends are confident — Ilse’s a born actress, Teddy’s set to be a great artist, and roguish Perry has the makings of a brilliant lawyer. When Emily has her poems published and writes for the town newspaper, success seems to be on its way — and with it the first whispers of romance. Then Emily is offered a fabulous opportunity, and she must decide if she wants to change her life forever.

The second book in the Emily trilogy covers Emily’s teen years as she attends high school in the nearby town of Shrewsbury. While Emily is desperate to further her education and hone her writing craft, she dreads being forced to board with her judgmental, restrictive Aunt Ruth. Plus, as part of being allowed to attend high school, Emily has had to promise not to write fiction during the three years of her schooling, which is a really tough pill for her to swallow. Still, she has her diaries and her poetry, and starts writing newspaper articles as well.

As the years go by, Emily and her friends grow and have more adventures, and Emily has some initial success as a writer when magazines begin publishing her submissions, sometimes even for money. Meanwhile, she has her first suitors, but her heart really belongs to the boy she’s grown up with.

I really enjoyed book #2, although one of the romantic situations involves a much older cousin-by-marriage and is kind of icky (although Emily, bless her heart, doesn’t understand at all that there’s a romantic interest there.) While he is never inappropriate, his interest is obvious, and seen through today’s lens, it feels way too much like grooming. So icky. (Granted, the book was written 100 years ago, so perspectives on this sort of thing would certainly have been different).

Even as she gets older, Emily is still a dreamer, and it’s lovely to see her view of the world around her. Like Anne (of Green Gables), she sees magic and beauty in the world, and is driven by the need to describe what she experiences through her writing.

By the end of Emily Climbs, Emily has finished school and set her course for the future. It’s charming to see the choices she makes and the life she envisions for herself.

Title: Emily’s Quest
Published: 1927
Length: 258 pages
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Emily Starr and Teddy Kent have been friends since childhood, and as Teddy is about to leave to further his education as an artist, Emily believes that their friendship is blossoming into something more. On his last night at home, they vow to think of each other when they see the star Vega of the Lyre.

As Emily grows as a writer and learns to deal with the loneliness of having her closest friends gone, life at New Moon changes. Mr. Carpenter, Emily’s most truthful critic and favorite teacher dies (warning Emily, even as he dies to “Beware — of — italics.”). She becomes closer to Dean Priest, even as she fears he wants love when she only has friendship to give. Worst of all, Emily and Teddy become distant as he focuses on building his career and she hides her feelings behind pride.

Oh, this book grabbed me and put my heart through the wringer! So many emotions! Emily grows into her young womanhood in Emily’s Quest, and it’s both sad and inspiring in so many ways.

Although she’s been offered an opportunity to pursue a career in New York, Emily knows in her heart that she belongs at New Moon, and that this is where her joy and creative inspiration live. She continues to live with her aunts and cousin in the family home and enjoys the natural beauty of her world. Her writing gets accepted by more and more magazines, and she actually earns enough to pay back the stuffy aunts and uncles who paid for her earlier education.

But Emily is lonely without her closest friends. She has many suitors, none of whom really stir her feelings enough to accept their proposals. Her older cousin Dean provides companionship, and it’s clear that he loves her. Emily is very fond of him and loves his friendship, but I started to hate him. He’s so disparaging of Emily’s work, to the point that he pretty much eviscerates her:

“Her pretty cobwebs—” ah, there it was. That was all Emily heard. She did not even realize that he was telling her he thought her a beautiful woman.

“Do you think what I write is nothing but cobwebs, Dean?” she asked chokingly.

Dean looked surprised, doing it very well. “Star, what else is it? What do you think it is yourself? I’m glad you can amuse yourself by writing. It’s a splendid thing to have a little hobby of the kind. And if you can pick up a few shekels by it—well, that’s all very well too in this kind of a world. But I’d hate to have you dream of being a Brontë or an Austen—and wake to find you’d wasted your youth on a dream.”

“I don’t fancy myself a Brontë or an Austen,” said Emily. “But you didn’t talk like that long ago, Dean. You used to think then I could do something some day.”

“We don’t bruise the pretty visions of a child,” said Dean. “But it’s foolish to carry childish dreams over into maturity. Better face facts. You write charming things of their kind, Emily. Be content with that and don’t waste your best years yearning for the unattainable or striving to reach some height far beyond your grasp.”

Ugh. If Dean Priest was standing in front of me, I think I’d have to punch him in the face. Because of a series of events that start with Dean telling Emily that her work is basically trash, Emily goes through one of the worst periods of her life, and eventually accepts Dean’s proposal of marriage, thinking she can have a happy life with him. Fortunately, she realizes what we readers have known all along — her heart has always belonged to Teddy Kent, the boy she’s loved since childhood.

Sadly, the course of true love never did run smooth, and there’s more heartbreak ahead. I can’t tell you how completely wrung out my feelings were, reading Emily’s ups and downs, and at times, hurting so much for her that I wanted to go hide with my head under a pillow.

But fear not, there’s a happy ending! I wish the ending had been given a little more time to breathe, but it was joyful nonetheless, and that’s really all I wanted — for Emily to find the happiness she deserves.

Wrapping it all up…

The fact that I was so caught up in Emily’s life shows what a magnificently written set of books this is! There’s something incredibly beautiful about following Emily’s story from girlhood through her teens and into womanhood, seeing all the different stages of her life, and experiencing how her childhood hopes and dreams evolve over time, making her the woman she finally becomes.

It’s a lovely journey, and Emily is a fabulous character. She has the starry-eyed joy that we see in Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables), but her story takes its own path. While initially feeling like a similar book about an orphaned girl finding a new family, Emily becomes someone unique and worth knowing in her own right. I love her imagination and joy as a child, and how her love of the world around her infuses her writing and her ability to love others.

The books are filled with memorable quirky characters, and the setting on Prince Edward Island is so lovingly drawn that I could visualize everything Emily sees. (PEI is going to be a travel goal for me!)

I’m so thrilled that I read the Emily trilogy, and I know in my heart that these are books I’ll come back to again and again.

Take A Peek Book Review: Comics Will Break Your Heart by Faith Erin Hicks

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought. This week’s “take a peek” book:

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Miriam’s family should be rich. After all, her grandfather was the co-creator of smash-hit comics series The TomorrowMen. But he sold his rights to the series to his co-creator in the 1960s for practically nothing, and now that’s what Miriam has: practically nothing. And practically nothing to look forward to either-how can she afford college when her family can barely keep a roof above their heads? As if she didn’t have enough to worry about, Miriam’s life gets much more complicated when a cute boy shows up in town… and turns out to be the grandson of the man who defrauded Miriam’s grandfather, and heir to the TomorrowMen fortune.

In her endearing debut novel, cartoonist Faith Erin Hicks pens a sensitive and funny Romeo and Juliet tale about modern romance, geek royalty, and what it takes to heal the long-festering scars of the past (Spoiler Alert: love).

My Thoughts:

Comic and graphic novel writer Faith Erin Hicks makes her debut in young adult fiction with Comics Will Break Your Heart, and does it beautifully! In this sweet YA novel, two teens from families with a long-standing grudge meet and connect one summer in Nova Scotia. Miriam’s grandfather co-created the TomorrowMen comics with Weldon’s grandfather, but sold his rights to the brand for only $900 many decades earlier. Since then, TomorrowMen has blown up with a huge fandom and a blockbuster movie in the works, and while Weldon’s family stands to profit hugely, Miriam’s will see not a dime, despite the 20-year lawsuit waged by her grandfather to undo the shoddy deal he unwittingly agreed to.

When Miriam and Weldon meet, they each carry their families’ baggage, but their mutual love of comics as well as their own personal struggles to figure out their futures draw them together and help them move past the animosity that’s lingered for so long. This is a quick, fun read, with touching moments too, and has some lovely scenes that highlight the intricacies and quirks of best friendships, relationships between teens and their parents, and the heartaches and worries that come with making decisions about where to go in life.

Comics Will Break Your Heart is also a terrific ode to the glories of fandom, culminating in a visit to (of course) San Diego Comic-Con. I’m sure everyone with a secret geeky obsession will relate to the characters’ reactions to entering geek heaven:

In a flash he saw everything as she saw it, the madness and energy but also the joyful heart of the convention.

“Oh, wow,” she whispered. “Comics made all of this.”

For more by this author, check out my reviews of two of her graphic novels, Friends With Boys and The Adventures of Superhero Girl.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Comics Will Break Your Heart
Author: Faith Erin Hicks
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press
Publication date: February 12, 2019
Length: 218 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Take A Peek Book Review: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Etta & Otto

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Eighty-three-year-old Etta has never seen the ocean. So early one morning she takes a rifle, some chocolate, and her best boots and begins walking the 3,232 kilometers from rural Saskatchewan, Canada eastward to the sea. As Etta walks further toward the crashing waves, the lines among memory, illusion, and reality blur.

Otto wakes to a note left on the kitchen table. “I will try to remember to come back,” Etta writes to her husband. Otto has seen the ocean, having crossed the Atlantic years ago to fight in a far-away war. He understands. But with Etta gone, the memories come crowding in and Otto struggles to keep them at bay. Meanwhile, their neighbor Russell has spent his whole life trying to keep up with Otto and loving Etta from afar. Russell insists on finding Etta, wherever she’s gone. Leaving his own farm will be the first act of defiance in his life.

Moving from the hot and dry present of a quiet Canadian farm to a dusty, burnt past of hunger, war, and passion, from trying to remember to trying to forget, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is an astounding literary debut “of deep longing, for reinvention and self-discovery, as well as for the past and for love and for the boundless unknown” (San Francisco Chronicle). “In this haunting debut, set in a starkly beautiful landscape, Hooper delineates the stories of Etta and the men she loved (Otto and Russell) as they intertwine through youth and wartime and into old age. It’s a lovely book you’ll want to linger over” (People).

 

My Thoughts:

Etta and Otto and Russell and James feels as familiar as an old shoe… and that’s both good and bad. There’s a heart-warming, comforting tone to it, and much of the story is told throughout flashbacks and interwoven memories. E&O&R&J seems to be one of several books recently about an elderly main character embarking on a sudden adventure or doing something completely out of character. I was reminded most forcefully of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, but that’s not the only example.

In this book, main character Etta wakes up one day and starts walking, setting off on an easterly course from Saskatchewan in order to see the ocean, which she’s never seen before. She walks all day long, every day, sleeping outdoors and bathing in rivers, with only a coyote for company. The coyote (James) talks, by the way — or at least, Etta believes he does. Magical elements come into play, although I suppose they could also be signs of Etta’s growing forgetfulness and dementia. She carries a fish skull, a token of her childhood, which gives her advice in French.

Meanwhile, Otto stays home waiting for Etta to return, and to stay busy, he teaches himself to bake and makes an entire papier-mâché menagerie. The third human of the title, Russell, a farmer who has spent his long life at home, sets out to find Etta and then to find himself.

Some of the most affecting portions of the story are the chapters and interludes in which we learn more about Otto’s childhood — one of fifteen children on a dusty farm, where attending school every other day in order to carry out chores at home is simply a fact of rural life — and see the complicated interconnections between Otto, Russell, and Etta. We learn, too, about Otto’s wartime experiences, which seem to have crept over into Etta’s own memories and dreams.

E&O&R&J is highly readable, and I enjoyed the light-handed touch applied by the author to even weighty scenes and subjects. However, the magical elements felt a little awkward and out of place to me, and of course Etta’s entire journey is basically impossible to believe… which I guess opens up other lines of thought, such as did her walk actually happen at all, or, like her dreams, is this a seemingly physical experience that’s actually something she’s experiencing vividly within her own head?

My favorites sections in the book are those that deal with the war, with the courtship, and with life on the family farm. The story unfolds in bits and pieces, with a fluid timeline that jumps back and forth, sometimes from page to page. Overall, it is both a sad and entertaining read, and I enjoyed this not-quite-real tale about dreams, disappointments, and the idea that it’s never too late for a life to take an unexpected turn.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Etta and Otto and Russell and James
Author: Emma Hooper
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: January 1, 2014
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley (and later, a used paperback bought at a library sale!)

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