Book Review: Young Jane Young

From the bestselling author of the beloved The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry comes another perfect fable for our times–a story about women, choices, and recovering from past mistakes.

Young Jane Young‘s heroine is Aviva Grossman, an ambitious Congressional intern in Florida who makes the life-changing mistake of having an affair with her boss‑‑who is beloved, admired, successful, and very married‑‑and blogging about it. When the affair comes to light, the Congressman doesn’t take the fall, but Aviva does, and her life is over before it hardly begins. She becomes a late‑night talk show punchline; she is slut‑shamed, labeled as fat and ugly, and considered a blight on politics in general.

How does one go on after this? In Aviva’s case, she sees no way out but to change her name and move to a remote town in Maine. She tries to start over as a wedding planner, to be smarter about her life, and to raise her daughter to be strong and confident. But when, at the urging of others, she decides to run for public office herself, that long‑ago mistake trails her via the Internet like a scarlet A. For in our age, Google guarantees that the past is never, ever, truly past, that everything you’ve done will live on for everyone to know about for all eternity. And it’s only a matter of time until Aviva/Jane’s daughter, Ruby, finds out who her mother was, and is, and must decide whether she can still respect her.

Gabrielle Zevin is an amazing writer, and in Young Jane Young, she captures the voices of the women narrators so well that it’s like hearing these very different people speak directly to us.

In turns narrated by Rachel (Aviva’s mother), Jane, her daughter Ruby, Embeth (the Congressman’s wife), and Aviva, we get a series of viewpoints and reactions to Aviva’s youthful mistake and how its consequences have persisted and affected all of their lives over the years.

Jane is grown-up Aviva, and she looks back on her 20s as if they were lived by a different person. She’s reinvented herself and left her past behind, but of course, nothing ever truly goes away. And to make a fresh start, she’s also left behind her mother, once her best friend, whom she equates with her shame and the insecurities of her past. Meanwhile, Ruby has no idea who her mother once was, and when the truth inevitably comes out, has to deal with the fallout in her own unique style.

The characters are each endearing in their own way. Rachel is a very Florida Jewish mother, who spends her mid-sixties with her best pal Roz, going to events at the local JCC and trying her hand at Internet dating. Jane is a savvy businesswoman whose success as a wedding planner stems in large part from her ability to empathize with the doubts and insecurities of her brides and to be there for them when they need her. Embeth is an interesting woman, who shows that there’s much more than meets the eye to the political wife who stands by her man. Ruby is a precocious, super smart girl who can’t fit in with her peers, but socializes flawlessly with the women of her mother’s world. And Aviva — young Jane Young — we get to know last of all, as we finally learn her take on the events that led to the affair with the Congressman, the ill-advised choices she made along the way, and the way scandal clings forever, courtesy of the Internet:

The discovery of your shame is one click away. Everyone’s is, not that that makes it any better. In high school, you read The Scarlet Letter, and it occurs to you that this is what the Internet is like. There’s that scene at the beginning where Hester Prynne is forced to stand in the town square for the afternoon. Maybe three or four hours. Whatever the time, it’s unbearable to her.

You will be standing in that square forever.

You will wear that “A” until you’re dead.

You consider your options.

You have no options.

Aviva compares her life to the Choose Your Own Adventure books that she enjoyed during childhood:

The way these books work is you get to the end of a section, and you make a choice, and then you turn to the corresponding page for that choice. You think how much these books are like life.

Except in Choose Your Own Adventure, you can move backward, and you can choose something else if you don’t like how the story turned out, or if you just want to know the other possible outcomes. You would like to do that, but you can’t. Life moves relentlessly forward. You turn to the next page, or you stop reading. If you stop reading, the story is over.

Ultimately, as Aviva narrates her choices and their outcomes, we see how she comes to the point where her only real option is reinvention — starting over as a new person, in a new place, and leaving her former story behind altogether.

Young Jane Young is witty, sad, entertaining, and unfortunately very real in what it has to say about women’s lives and women’s choices. Aviva made mistakes, to be certain — but she didn’t make them alone, and long past the point where she should be done paying, she still is stuck with the labels and judgments that she bears. Public opinion, sad to stay, still excuses the wealthy, well-positioned male in ways that it won’t for the young, foolish female. The disparity in the outcomes for Aviva and the Congressman are startling and upsetting, yet match quite well with what we all see in real-life public scandals and the apportionment of public shame.

I suppose, too, that Young Jane Young could serve as a sort of cautionary tale for people (especially women) on the cusp of their adult lives who don’t yet realize the permanence of certain choices and mistakes. But the book is much more than that. It shines a light on women’s relationships — the bonds of friendship, family, and compassion — and shows how vital these connections are in order to lead healthy lives. It shows the damage done, even without meaning to, by the constant judging that women endure over things — body size, clothing choices, etc — that really shouldn’t matter. It’s a bold feminist statement about the ongoing inequality in the public view, and how women are still held to different standards and face different consequences than their male counterparts.

I highly recommend Young Jane Young. Gabrielle Zevin creates people we care about, and she has a talent for making these character feel like people we might meet in our daily lives. I definitely laughed quite a bit while reading it (Rachel and Ruby in particular are terrifically funny people, even when experiencing moments that aren’t funny at all) — but also found myself sad and indignant and ready for a fight!

If you enjoy strong, entertaining, intelligent, vulnerable women leading the way, definitely check out Young Jane Young.

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The details:

Title: Young Jane Young
Author: Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Algonquin
Publication date: August 22, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: The Arrangement

A hilarious and emotionally charged novel about a couple who embark on an open marriage-what could possibly go wrong?

Lucy and Owen, ambitious, thoroughly-therapized New Yorkers, have taken the plunge, trading in their crazy life in a cramped apartment for Beekman, a bucolic Hudson Valley exurb. They’ve got a two hundred year-old house, an autistic son obsessed with the Titanic, and 17 chickens, at last count. It’s the kind of paradise where stay-at-home moms team up to cook the school’s “hot lunch,” dads grill grass-fed burgers, and, as Lucy observes, “chopping kale has become a certain kind of American housewife’s version of chopping wood.”

When friends at a wine-soaked dinner party reveal they’ve made their marriage open, sensible Lucy balks. There’s a part of her, though-the part that worries she’s become too comfortable being invisible-that’s intrigued. Why not try a short marital experiment? Six months, clear ground rules, zero questions asked. When an affair with a man in the city begins to seem more enticing than the happily-ever-after she’s known for the past nine years, Lucy must decide what truly makes her happy-“real life,” or the “experiment?”

The Arrangement wants very badly to be funny and topical, but only partially succeeds. While it’s a quick and quirky read, there are just too many illogical moments for this book to fully hit the mark.

Lucy and Owen love each other, struggle with their special-needs son Wyatt, and are more or less happy living in their little community, where people seem committed to providing their children with an idealized, wholesome quality of life. The idea of open marriage drops into their laps during a drunken dinner with friends, and it seems like with barely any real thought, Lucy and Owen decide to give it a go.

They launch their arrangement with a list of rules written in Sharpie on a legal pad: No talking about The Arrangement. (Yes, there are references to Fight Club). There’s a six-month duration, and then it’s done. No falling in love. Always use condoms. (No Costco condoms, either; make sure they’re good quality.) No prostitutes. No sexting inside the house. It starts as a joke, but within one conversation, they decide to actually do it.

Owen falls quickly into a sexy relationship with a local woman, who at first seems to provide him with just the sexual adventure he’s look for — but who quickly turns into a high-need, demanding girlfriend who’s combining their trysts with household chores like caulking the bathroom. And really, if Owen were going to start doing repairs for a woman, he might as well have stayed home. At the same time, Owen doesn’t really believe that Lucy will follow through on her side of The Arrangement, and has no idea that she’s found her own regular sex partner, who could turn into something more.

Meanwhile, the people of Beekman figure heavily in the background of the story, as we see one unhappy marriage after another, each with its own oddities and hidden secrets. The marital problems of the town seem to escalate throughout the book, as relationships tumble downward, fast.

I’ll admit that I had fun with The Arrangement while I was reading it. It had enough clever and interesting bits to keep me wanting more, and I read it all in about two days. At the same time — and maybe this is just because I don’t match the demographics or lifestyle or geography of the characters — I just couldn’t relate to these people at all.

The main characters are mostly in their 30s, with young children, experiencing life on the other side of wedded bliss. They all seem to be struggling with the reality that hits once marriage and family life is no longer new, when there are bills and groceries and school projects and home repairs to deal with. The initial euphoria is gone, and all of the characters in the book seem to be hitting a form of mid-life crisis at the same time.

Lucy and Owen’s decision makes little to no sense. They each feel weighed down by their lives, and miss the romance and excitement of their earlier years. But it’s a big step to decide to try an open marriage, and the fact that they launch themselves down this path with practically no discussion seems unbelievable.

The antics of the town are too cutesy to take at times, with the emphasis on organic foods and community organizing and non-stop mommy pressure. There’s a blessing of the animals event that becomes a big focus for the entire town later in the book, and it’s clearly intended to be a big comical moment in the story, as each family tries to outdo the rest by bringing more exotic animals than their neighbors. But when the event gets completely out of hand and ends in disaster, it’s so utterly predictable that it loses its comic value.

Likewise, the insistence on shifting focus away from Lucy and Owen to go inside others’ marriages becomes tedious and makes the storytelling seem more scattered than it needs to be. There’s far too much attention paid to the marriage of a 60-ish billionaire and his much younger 3rd wife, and they’re just not that amusing or important to take up that much space.

The Arrangement is a fun, light read, and as I said, I zipped through it. But there’s an inconsistency in the tone; not everything is funny, particularly not seeing a marriage dissolving in a way that could have been prevented had the characters not made ill-considered, bone-headed decisions. The foolish way in which the two main characters risk their marriage and their family life irked me too much to keep me from truly enjoying the story.

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The details:

Title: The Arrangement
Author: Sarah Dunn
Publisher: Little Brown and Company
Publication date: March 21, 2017
Length: 357 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: A Fall of Marigolds

“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.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A beautiful scarf, passed down through the generations, connects two women who learn that the weight of the world is made bearable by the love we give away….

September 1911. On Ellis Island in New York Harbor, nurse Clara Wood cannot face returning to Manhattan, where the man she loved fell to his death in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Then, while caring for a fevered immigrant whose own loss mirrors hers, she becomes intrigued by a name embroidered onto the scarf he carries …and finds herself caught in a dilemma that compels her to confront the truth about the assumptions she’s made. Will what she learns devastate her or free her?

September 2011. On Manhattan’s Upper West Side, widow Taryn Michaels has convinced herself that she is living fully, working in a charming specialty fabric store and raising her daughter alone. Then a long-lost photograph appears in a national magazine, and she is forced to relive the terrible day her husband died in the collapse of the World Trade Towers …the same day a stranger reached out and saved her. Will a chance reconnection and a century-old scarf open Taryn’s eyes to the larger forces at work in her life?

My Thoughts:

While A Fall of Marigolds held my attention, I couldn’t quite love this book. For one thing, I’m really getting tired of the split timeline narrative that seems to be everywhere these days, especially when the two timelines are connected by some artifact of one sort or another — a painting, a diary, a doll, etc. It’s a plot device that’s becoming all too prevalent in historical fiction when the author wants a contemporary hook. In A Fall of Marigolds, it’s a colorful scarf that features in both the 1911 and 2011 stories, but the linkage between the two feels forced at times.

It’s too bad, because I might have enjoyed the book more if it had just told one story or the other. Either is compelling, and the book does contain some very dramatic and emotional moments. 9/11 is still part of our collective psyches, and it’s impossible to read Taryn’s part of the story, which includes her eyewitness experience of watching the towers fall, and not be overwhelmed by memories and feelings.

Likewise, the story of the nurses of Ellis Island and their work with infectious immigrants, as well as the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, is powerful and moving. But the lives of the fictional characters can’t really measure up to the terror and power of the real events. Clara’s experiences, and her fixation on the man who died in the fire in particular, seem rather lightweight when looking at the broader extent of the tragedy. Her story is enlivened by her interactions with the immigrant she nurses through scarlet fever and her dilemma regarding his own losses and secrets, but I couldn’t buy the essential premise of her part of the story and Clara’s view on love and destiny.

The entire plot of A Fall of Marigolds seems to rest quite a bit on the characters coming to terms with events outside of their control. For both Taryn and Clara, they’re left to sort out whether things were meant to happen, or whether their own actions were somehow to blame for outcomes that could otherwise have been avoided. Clara’s need to figure out whether her love for the man she barely knew was real is vital to her, but her fixation on the loss of what might have been begins to feel overblown as the story progresses. On the other hand, Taryn’s guilt over surviving and the loss of her husband feel quite real, and her story gets a pay-off that is bittersweet yet satisfying.

Parts of this book are quite good, but as a whole, there’s some essential element missing. And as I said, the overall structure doesn’t work for me in general — I really would not have started this book, knowing it was a “two-women-from-two-different-eras-linked-by-one-special-thing” kind of story, were it not a book group pick. I’m glad to have read it, but knowing now that most of this author’s works have a similar two-timeline structure, I don’t think I’ll be seeking out more of her books.

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The details:

Title: A Fall of Marigolds
Author: Susan Meissner
Publisher: NAL
Publication date: January 1, 2014
Length: 394 pages
Genre: Contemporary/historical fiction
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: Waking Lions

“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.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

After one night’s deadly mistake, a man will go to any lengths to save his family and his reputation.

Neurosurgeon Eitan Green has the perfect life–married to a beautiful police officer and father of two young boys. Then, speeding along a deserted moonlit road after an exhausting hospital shift, he hits someone. Seeing that the man, an African migrant, is beyond help, he flees the scene.

When the victim’s widow knocks at Eitan’s door the next day, holding his wallet and divulging that she knows what happened, Eitan discovers that her price for silence is not money. It is something else entirely, something that will shatter Eitan’s safe existence and take him into a world of secrets and lies he could never have anticipated.

WAKING LIONS is a gripping, suspenseful, and morally devastating drama of guilt and survival, shame and desire from a remarkable young author on the rise.

 

My Thoughts:

Waking Lions is an Israeli novel translated into English, and having or getting a grasp of Israeli social dynamics is key to understanding the conflicts and pressures involved in this story. Eitan is a respected, talented neurosurgeon who was forced into leaving his prestigious position at a Tel Aviv hospital after threatening — unsuccessfully — to expose his mentor’s corruption. Now living in the desert town of Beersheva, he’s frustrated and out of sorts, despite having a wonderful marriage and two small boys whom he loves. When he runs down the Eritrean immigrant with his SUV in the middle of the night, Eitan makes a snap decision that will haunt him and threaten all he holds dear.

The wife of the hit-and-run victim blackmails Eitan — not for money, but for medical treatment for a seemingly endless crowd of illegal immigrants, all refugees who risked their lives to cross the border into Israel. The Eritrean refugees work menial jobs for bare subsistence, and are too scared to go to a real clinic or hospital for help, fearing deportation or detention.

Waking Lions outlines the serious problems facing refugees, the ongoing criminal activity in areas such as Beersheva, and the ethnic tensions between African migrants, Bedouins, and Israelis. Moreover, Waking Lions is the exploration of personal ethics — how does a “good” man like Eitan justify the choices he makes? On top of this, as we view events from multiple points of view, it becomes clear that the cultural divides here are so vast that it’s simply impossible for any one person to  understand the thoughts and desires of any other.

While Waking Lions was a compelling read and offered plenty of food for thought and discussion, it was at times frustrating as well. The language often feels over-written, with long passages about inner thought processes that seem to meander and engage a bit too much in navel-gazing. (I have to wonder whether some parts of this book worked better in the original Hebrew.) Eitan in particular, as well as other characters, makes choices that seem utterly senseless, and I often felt that a desire for a dramatic plot was pushing the author to have characters act in unbelievable ways or to makes decisions that defy logic.

On a reading note, I’ll add that my husband and I ended up reading this book at the same time, and had many long discussions about the characters and their actions along the way. In some ways, our discussions were the best part of reading this book, so it could make for a terrific book group choice!

I enjoyed Waking Lions, but did feel that the lengthier moments of introspection weakened the storytelling, and couldn’t help shaking my head over some of the more ridiculous developments. Still, the book provides an eye-opening view into a little-covered element of life in Israel, and posed some interesting dilemmas about right and wrong — and whether right and wrong are absolutes or subject to social interpretation.

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The details:

Title: Waking Lions
Author: Ayelet Gundar-Goshen
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
Publication date: February 28, 2017
Note: Original Hebrew edition published 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Published

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Book Review: The Mother’s Promise

mothers-promiseKeep your Kleenex handy before picking up The Mother’s Promise.

The Mother’s Promise is the story of an unusual yet tightly connected mother and daughter, and the two women who enter their inner circle.

Alice is a 40-year-old single mother who receives the dreaded news that she has ovarian cancer and requires immediate surgery. Zoe is her 15-year-old daughter, a smart girl who’s practically crippled by her overwhelming social anxiety disorder. There’s no one else in their lives — no close friends, no relatives apart from Alice’s alcoholic brother. Zoe’s father has never been in the picture, and Zoe knows nothing about him.

Kate is the oncology nurse looking after Alice. Kate is married to a wonderful man and has two too-good-to-be-true teen-aged stepchildren, but her happy marriage is now on the verge of crumbling under the stress of infertility treatments and multiple miscarriages.

(Do we see where this is going yet? In this case, unpredictability may be overrated. More on this later…)

The fourth character in this circle is Sonja, the social worker assigned to Alice’s case, who steps in to make sure that Alice gets the support she needs as well as to make sure that Zoe has a roof over her head and someone to care for her when Alice’s condition worsens. Sonja, of course, has her own set of hidden problems and pains.

The novel shows these four women coming together, all with their own inner turmoil and emotional trauma, and finding healing and support through each others’ helping hands. The story unfolds via chapters told from all four points of view, so we get insights into what it feels like to be in their shoes.

In Zoe’s case, this is particularly affecting. Zoe’s situation is pure, utter agony. She’s so debilitated by her social anxiety that she can never speak in class, feels ashamed every time she walks down the school hallway, and agonizes over other kids’ opinions to such an extent that , for example, she never allows herself to eat in public for fear that she’ll do something embarrassing and everyone will stare or laugh at her. Being in Zoe’s mind is exhausting and sad, but also fascinating. Here’s a girl with so much to offer, and she just can’t do the things that will help her fit in, no matter how hard she tries. Her mother really and truly is all she has, and it’s terrifying for both of them to realize that her entire life is dependent on Alice being there.

For Alice, the diagnosis comes completely out of the blue (as is so often the case with ovarian cancer). In a particularly moving scene, Alice hears the doctor and nurse pouring information out at her about the tests and the results and the treatment, and yet can’t even recognize the word “cancer” as applied to herself until about the 3rd or 4th time it’s said in her presence. Alice is committed to being positive, but her positivity crosses into denial over the seriousness of her condition and her poor prognosis.

Kate and Sonja’s storylines, while part of the novel, get less time than Alice and Zoe’s, but they each still emerge as individuals with their own lives, worries, and needs.

So what did I think of The Mother’s Promise? Hold on, let me wipe that last tear and then I’ll let you know…

Obviously, this is a heart-wrenching, gut-punching book. That should be clear from the start. It’s about a single mother with ovarian cancer — let’s not kid ourselves about this having a happy ending.

As I mentioned from the start, the resolution of the story is easy to see coming from very early on — but that in no way diminishes the impact. The importance thing in The Mother’s Promise is the journey, not the destination. Zoe in particular is the one to watch — there’s no instant cure for her social anxiety disorder, but she makes small steps toward breaking out of her old ways, and even manages to push past a truly awful moment of humiliation that any teen, even without anxiety issues, would have an extremely hard time getting over. It’s lovely to see Zoe’s determination to try, and enlightening to be inside her head and to learn what it feels like to be such a wounded, vulnerable soul.

Kate is lovely. I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s a woman who loses all of the dreams of the kind of future she wants, and yet finds a way to be open and caring and nurturing. It’s a beautiful story arc, and I wish we got to spend more time with her. Maybe a sequel??

I have mixed feelings about Alice. Obviously, she’s worthy of sympathy and compassion, and her ordeal is horrible. I just wish the storytelling around Alice was a bit more consistent. The chapters told from her perspective are quite moving, of course, yet we cut away to other people’s perspectives at times when I wanted to know how Alice was feeling, phyically and emotionally, such as during her initial hospitalization and recovery from surgery.

As for Sonja — her story weaves in some themes that are important and worthy of attention, but at the same time, she feels extraneous to the story. Again, I don’t want to give too much away here, so I’ll be vague. It’s not that Sonja’s sections aren’t interesting. I just felt that you could remove her pieces from the novel, and the core of the story would not lose anything. Perhaps this is just trying to fit one too many story threads into one novel. It’s a good thread, but unnecessary.

I started The Mother’s Promise knowing I’d probably dissolve at some point while reading it, and that’s a pretty accurate picture of what happened. Mothers and daughters? Cancer? Helplessly watching a parent suffer? Children with no one to care for them? Oh, this book knew exactly how to push my buttons! Waterworks galore.

But still — The Mother’s Promise is a beautiful book despite all the heartache. The relationships are complex and feel real, with fragile people strengthened by their unbreakable emotional bonds. Some tearjerker books feel too deliberate, as if the author sat down and said, “Hmm. How can I make my readers cry?”. Not The Mother’s Promise. Yes, there will be tears, but they’re genuine and feel earned.

Definitely read The Mother’s Promise. It’s powerful and well-written, and will make you look at your loved ones with new, appreciate eyes. And, definitely worth mentioning, the book does an admirable job of showing the power of women caregivers, nurses, and nurterers — people who change lives on a daily basis. Kudos to the author for such a sensitive and fine portrayal of roles that are often overlooked.

For more by this author, check out her amazing (and equally heart-wrenching) previous novel, The Things We Keep (review).

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The details:

Title: The Mother’s Promise
Author: Sally Hepworth
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publication date: February 21, 2017
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: Always by Sarah Jio

always

While enjoying a romantic candlelit dinner with her fiance, Ryan, at one of Seattle’s chicest restaurants, Kailey Crane can’t believe her good fortune: She has a great job as a writer for the Herald and is now engaged to a guy who is perfect in nearly every way. As they leave the restaurant, Kailey spies a thin, bearded homeless man on the sidewalk. She approaches him to offer up her bag of leftovers, and is stunned when their eyes meet, then stricken to her very core: The man is the love of her life, Cade McAllister.

When Kailey met Cade ten years ago, their attraction was immediate and intense everything connected and felt “right.” But it all ended suddenly, leaving Kailey devastated. Now the poor soul on the street is a faded version of her former beloved: His weathered and weary face is as handsome as Kailey remembers, but his mind has suffered in the intervening years. Over the next few weeks, Kailey helps Cade begin to piece his life together, something she initially keeps from Ryan. As she revisits her long-ago relationship, Kailey realizes that she must decide exactly what and whom she wants.

Alternating between the past and the present, Always is a beautifully unfolding exploration of a woman faced with an impossible choice, a woman who discovers what she’s willing to save and what she will sacrifice for true love.

Warning: This review contains spoilers!

And a disclaimer: This just isn’t my kind of story, and that fact probably influences my reaction quite a bit… but maybe not. I’ll explain, I promise.

I like a good romantic tale every once in a while. A nice, contemporary story about falling in love, or rediscovering love, or the memory of love… what’s not to — you know?

So why didn’t I love Always? For starters, everything was so completely obvious. In chapter one, we see Kailey sitting down to dinner with her super rich, too handsome to be true, perfect gentleman from a fine family fiancé, and I could tell you already that these two will never work out. He’s a developer; she wants to save the homeless shelters in the square of his next big development project. He’s being kind of insistent in an incredibly outdated way about her changing her name when they get married. They seem to read home decorating magazines for fun. There is just no way that these two should ever get married — so when she stumbles across the former love of her life dressed in rags and seemingly out of his mind, there’s really no dramatic tension. OF COURSE she’s going to end up with Cade. I mean, there isn’t the slightest shadow of a doubt about it.

Still, we get the alternating timeline effect, following the story of Kailey and Cade’s first meeting (Seattle in the 90s) and early romance, intercut with chapters set in the later timeline (2008) as she discovers Cade on the streets and decides that she has to save him. The more we see of Kailey and Cade’s relationship, the clearer it becomes that Ryan is all wrong for Kailey. But anyway…

Cade is homeless, begging for food, and clearly has been through something awful. He only shows a glimmer of recognition when he sees the tattoo on Kailey’s shoulder — because of course, he has the same one. She’s desperate to help him, and he doesn’t actually know who she is. Meanwhile, she never tells Ryan the truth, so she’s living a lie, missing work, and disappearing from life with her fiancé — not a good sign.

Plot-wise, there are just too many pieces that make no sense to me. (As I said earlier, SPOILERS!);

  • Cade just up and disappeared 10 years earlier, but it’s not clear whether Kailey actually did anything to find him. A guy, even one who’s been drinking too much, doesn’t just evaporate from his own life for no reason. Did she go to his apartment and notice that all his possessions were still there? Did she call the police? File a missing persons report? Hire a detective? Try to figure out who last saw him? If she’d done any of that, no matter the state of their relationship, I have a feeling she might have actually found him. Although then we’d have no big romantic reunion all those years later, but still.
  • So what exactly was wrong with Cade? “Traumatic brain injury” — what does that even mean? I know this isn’t a medical drama, but a little bit of a reality check might have helped. What part of the brain was affected? What’s the prognosis? And why is the treatment so vague? Living in a facility with unspecified treatments, medications, therapies… and suddenly he can talk and remember? More detail and grounding would have helped sell Cade’s condition better.
  • And what exactly happened the night of the accident? Apparently, Cade was the victim of some sort of crime… maybe? Or hit by a car? Or really, anything at all? We don’t know. And for that matter, why didn’t James, the former best friend, bother finding out afterward?
  • We find out, through Kailey’s barely-making-an-effort detective work, that a John Doe was admitted to the hospital with a brain injury right around that same time, but was checked out by a family member before treatment could be provided. AND THEN WE NEVER GET A RESOLUTION ON THIS PLOT POINT. Who checked him out? Why? Did something nefarious happen? No answers.

Okay, so the more I write, the more I realize how much the plot didn’t work for me. It felt formulaic and utterly predictable, with very little tension (Kailey’s choice is a forgone conclusion), and a romance that gets a pie-in-the-sky ending that feels like it glazes over any and all obstacles. Heck, they even recover Cade’s missing fortune by barely lifting a finger (and the story I expected, of insidious business dealings and a financial motivation, never actually materializes.) The storybook ending is yet another element of a paint-by-number love story that lacks any basis in the real world.

Sure, some may find this an inspiring story of true love finding its way. When two people are meant to be together, nothing (NOT EVEN A TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY) can keep them apart. Love conquers all, yo!

Clearly, this was not a book for me.

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The details:

Title: Always
Author: Sarah Jio
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: February 7, 2017
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: After I Do

after-i-doWarning: This review will include some minor spoilers. Don’t worry — I’ll flag the spoilery parts!

From the author of Forever, Interrupted comes a breathtaking new novel about modern marriage, the depth of family ties, and the year that one remarkable heroine spends exploring both.

When Lauren and Ryan’s marriage reaches the breaking point, they come up with an unconventional plan. They decide to take a year off in the hopes of finding a way to fall in love again. One year apart, and only one rule: they cannot contact each other. Aside from that, anything goes.

Lauren embarks on a journey of self-discovery, quickly finding that her friends and family have their own ideas about the meaning of marriage. These influences, as well as her own healing process and the challenges of living apart from Ryan, begin to change Lauren’s ideas about monogamy and marriage. She starts to question: When you can have romance without loyalty and commitment without marriage, when love and lust are no longer tied together, what do you value? What are you willing to fight for?

This is a love story about what happens when the love fades. It’s about staying in love, seizing love, forsaking love, and committing to love with everything you’ve got. And above all, After I Do is the story of a couple caught up in an old game—and searching for a new road to happily ever after.

I definitely have mixed feelings about this book. I’ve now read all of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s books currently available, and I think she’s an amazing writer. She never fails to convincingly capture the inner lives of seemingly ordinary people What makes her books and characters so special is her knack for revealing what goes on beneath the surface. What’s really happening in the heart and mind of a young woman experiencing first love? What does it feel like to be so annoyed with one’s partner that it’s almost impossible to remember even liking the person, let alone loving them?

Lauren and Ryan have been together since age 19, when they met in college. For all intents and purposes, Ryan is Lauren’s only love and only relationship. She had a high school boyfriend, with whom she lost her virginity, but that’s it. So Lauren entered adult life partnered with Ryan, and her entire experience of being in a committed relationship is with Ryan.

And once the heady rush of lust and wonder and romance starts to wear off in the face of daily irritations like disagreeing over restaurants or calling the plumber, it’s hard for Lauren and Ryan to see a reason for their marriage any longer.

As the synopsis explains, they decide to separate for a year. Neither utters the word “divorce”. They’re going to take a year apart, with no contact whatsoever, to see if they can reset, explore their own lives on their own, and figure out how to reconnect.

SPOILERS AHOY! I can’t talk about the book any further without getting more specific, so skip this part if you’d rather not know.

As Lauren and Ryan are splitting, Lauren asks if this means that they’ll date other people, and Ryan confirms that this is part of the deal. There are no rules at all about their behavior while they’re apart. And not only do they date other people — they sleep with other people. A lot. And somehow still expect to have a marriage to come back to.

I’m sorry, but while I love the writing and zipped through this book, I just cannot buy the premise. This is so unhealthy and dysfunctional. SEPARATING FOR A YEAR, NOT COMMUNICATING FOR A YEAR, AND SLEEPING WITH OTHER PEOPLE IS NOT HOW YOU SAVE A MARRIAGE.

They go straight from admitting that they can’t stand each other and don’t think they love each other any more to deciding to separate. What about couples counseling? They never even give it a try. Granted, going to counseling would be a fairly lame plot for a romantic novel, whereas the separation thing is much more dramatic… but in real life? This is a recipe for disaster.

If the goal is to get back together after a year, you do not sleep with other people! No matter how much their separation teaches them about being supportive and respectful and communicating, how do you get past knowing that your spouse spent a year having sex, including some great sex, with other people?

In Lauren’s case, her sex life with Ryan was all she knew, and it wasn’t very satisfying. So she has a no-strings, friends-with-benefits arrangement with a recently divorced man who’s not over his ex-wife, and through their encounters, she learns more about asking for what she wants in bed. Fair enough — but again, counseling, people!

In a key plot element, neither Ryan nor Lauren bother to change their email passwords during their year apart, so they end up reading each others’ draft emails throughout the year, thereby learning about the things that made them bonkers during their marriage as well as their current sexual encounters.

So, no, I don’t believe that they could have actually picked up the pieces of their marriage after all this, or that a year apart without every working on things together would enable them to realize what they need to do to have a healthy relationship going forward.

END OF SPOILERY BITS

What I did find convincing was the fact that Lauren grew up in a household with a single mother. Lauren’s mother raised her three kids marvelously and clearly devoted herself to them. But at the same time, Lauren never saw her mother in a relationship (she kept her boyfriends hidden from her kids), and never had a healthy adult marriage to model her own after. Which is kind of a debatable point, by the way — I by no means believe that children of divorce can’t grow up to have great marriages of their own, as a general rule. But in After I Do, this does seem to be a factor in Lauren’s unhealthy marriage, especially when compounded by the fact that her relationship with Ryan is all she’s ever experienced, and it seems as though the two of them were unprepared for the realities involved when transitioning to adulthood as a couple.

This may all sound very negative, so I want to be sure to point out all the good too. I loved Lauren’s family — her super-close relaitonship with her sister, her flighty younger brother who finds his own unconventional love over the course of the book, the amazing grandmother who influences Lauren’s life, and the family’s oddball quirks and traditions that make them feel unique and special. Likewise, Lauren’s best friend Mila adds another view of adult relationships to Lauren’s perspective, and helps her come to understand that love and commitment transcend daily drama and household nonsense.

As I mentioned to start with, I really enjoy this author’s writing. She has a knack for making her characters feel real. No one is perfect, and even our point-of-view characters are quite openly flawed. She does a great job of breathing life into her characters’ emotional traumas, as well as their silly fixations and disagreements, and realistically shows how relationships either grow or fall apart under the stress of ordinary life.

Do I recommend After I Do? I do, actually! While I disagreed with many of the plot elements, I still found it highly readable and engaging. If you enjoy reading about young adults dealing with the realities of love and romance in the modern world, try After I Do and other books by this author.

Check out my reviews of other books by Taylor Jenkins Reid:
Maybe In Another Life
One True Loves
Forever, Interrupted

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The details:

Title: After I Do
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: July 1, 2014
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: Forever, Interrupted

“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.

forever-interrupted

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Elsie Porter is an average twentysomething and yet what happens to her is anything but ordinary. On a rainy New Year’s Day, she heads out to pick up a pizza for one. She isn’t expecting to see anyone else in the shop, much less the adorable and charming Ben Ross. Their chemistry is instant and electric. Ben cannot even wait twenty-four hours before asking to see her again. Within weeks, the two are head over heels in love. By May, they’ve eloped.

Only nine days later, Ben is out riding his bike when he is hit by a truck and killed on impact. Elsie hears the sirens outside her apartment, but by the time she gets downstairs, he has already been whisked off to the emergency room. At the hospital, she must face Susan, the mother-in-law she has never met and who doesn’t even know Elsie exists.

Interweaving Elsie and Ben’s charmed romance with Elsie and Susan’s healing process, Forever, Interrupted will remind you that there’s more than one way to find a happy ending.

 

My Thoughts:

Get ready for heartbreak.

Seriously. This books picks up your heart and smashes it into little bits within the first few pages. We start with newlyweds Ben and Elsie reveling in the simple joys of a lazy day as husband and wife, and within moments, Ben is dead and Elsie is left alone, devastated, and unwilling to even imagine her life without Ben in it.

The book alternates between Elsie’s life after Ben’s death and chapters focusing on how Elsie and Ben met and fell head over heels in love. Their love story is sparkling and fresh, but carries with it the knowledge of tragedy looming. Meanwhile, in the present, Elsie is forced to figure out how to deal with incessant grief and to confront a life without the man she intended to build her future with. By opening herself up to Ben’s mother Susan, she is able to understand the magnitude of love, whether in a marriage that lasts days or years, and what life can still hold once that love is gone.

Forever, Interrupted is a lovely, powerful look at unexpected love and loss, and the families we find along the way.

Also by this author:
Maybe In Another Life
One True Loves

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The details:

Title: Forever, Interrupted
Author: Taylor Jenkins Reid
Publisher: Washington Square Press
Publication date: July 9, 2013
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Take A Peek Book Review: A Man Called Ove

“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.

man-called-ove

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A grumpy yet loveable man finds his solitary world turned on its head when a boisterous young family moves in next door.

Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon, the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him the bitter neighbor from hell, but must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

 

My Thoughts:

I really enjoyed A Man Called Ove, especially as I moved further into the story. At the outset, it felt almost too familiar — yet another grumpy old man who finds a new lease on life thanks to the interference of quirky neighbors; a man who finds it harder and harder to maintain his isolation and bitterness, despite his best efforts. 

And yes, there is that, but there are greater depths as well, as we learn more about Ove’s earlier life and what’s actually going on in his head and his heart. With each layer of the past revealed, we get a deeper insight into the secret joys and sorrows of Ove’s life, and come to understand why he’s ended up where he is when we first meet him.

Again, the cast of supporting characters seems a bit familiar — the old friend, the overly friendly and overweight young man next door, the extremely persistent pregnant woman with a hapless husband… and the bedraggled, homeless cat who ends up being the key to breaking through Ove’s outer shell. Still, despite feeling like I’ve read variations of this story before, by the end I was hopelessly caught up in the emotional impact of the story and very much invested in Ove and his ragtag gang of neighbors and partners in crime, so to speak.

I had one small quibble — it was a little disconcerting to reconcile Ove’s age (59) with the description of him as being old and curmudgeonly. If we weren’t explicitly told his age, I would have put him at least another 20 years older.

That said, A Man Called Ove is a delightful read. I got through about 2/3 via audiobook before switching to print, simply because I was traveling and didn’t have a way to listen. The audiobook was quite fun (and taught me how to pronounce Ove’s name — it’s OO-va.) Either way, I have no problem recommending this book to anyone who enjoys quirky, unpredictable characters — but be warned: You must be okay with having your heart melted too.

I definitely want to read more by this author!

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The details:

Title: A Man Called Ove
Author: Fredrik Backman (translated from the Swedish by Henning Koch)
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: 2012
Length: 337 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #61: The Borrower

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

the-borrowerTitle: The Borrower
Author: Rebecca Makkai
Published: 2011
Length: 324 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

In this delightful, funny, and moving first novel, a librarian and a young boy obsessed with reading take to the road.

Lucy Hull, a young children’s librarian in Hannibal, Missouri, finds herself both a kidnapper and kidnapped when her favorite patron, ten- year-old Ian Drake, runs away from home. The precocious Ian is addicted to reading, but needs Lucy’s help to smuggle books past his overbearing mother, who has enrolled Ian in weekly antigay classes with celebrity Pastor Bob. Lucy stumbles into a moral dilemma when she finds Ian camped out in the library after hours with a knapsack of provisions and an escape plan. Desperate to save him from Pastor Bob and the Drakes, Lucy allows herself to be hijacked by Ian. The odd pair embarks on a crazy road trip from Missouri to Vermont, with ferrets, an inconvenient boyfriend, and upsetting family history thrown in their path. But is it just Ian who is running away? Who is the man who seems to be on their tail? And should Lucy be trying to save a boy from his own parents?

How I got it:

I bought it.

When I got it:

In 2014, when Rebecca Makkai’s more recent novel, The Hundred-Year House, was released

Why I want to read it:

I read reviews of The Hundred-Year House and thought it sounds like something I’d enjoy. When I looked up the author on Goodreads, I saw that a few of my reliable book friends had very positive reviews of The Borrower too… so I bought them both! I always love books about books and books about librarians, so The Borrower seems like a definite win for me.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!

For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control