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 He’s being kind of insistent in an incredibly outdated way about her changing her name when they get married.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

Thursday Quotables: Good Morning, Midnight

quotation-marks4

Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

good-morning-midnight

Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton
(published 2016)

I just finished this unusual book, which tells the story of a lone astromoner at the North Pole and the crew of a spaceship returning from exploring Jupiter, all of whom appear to be the last remaining human beings after an unknown event leaves them unable to communicate with anyone else. I liked this passage about the older man’s view of the world around him:

There was a time when the changes in the sky meant more to him than the ground beneath his feet, but not right then. He had been looking up for long enough; it felt good to think of the dirt instead, to imagine the life that would soon return to the land.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Audiobook Review: Flight

flight

Sherman Alexie is one of our most gifted and accomplished storytellers and a treasured writer of huge national stature. His first novel in ten years is the hilarious and tragic portrait of an orphaned Indian boy who travels back and forth through time in a charged search for his true identity. With powerful and swift, prose, Flight follows this troubled foster teenager–a boy who is not a “legal” Indian because he was never claimed by his father–as he learns that violence is not the answer.

The journey for Flight‘s young hero begins as he’s about to commit a massive act of violence. At the moment of decision, he finds himself shot back through time to resurface in the body of an FBI agent during the civil rights era, where he sees why “Hell is Red River, Idaho, in the 1970s.” Red River is only the first stop in an eye-opening trip through moments in American history. He will continue traveling back to inhabit the body of an Indian child during the battle at Little Bighorn and then ride with an Indian tracker in the nineteenth century before materializing as an airline pilot jetting through the skies today. During these furious travels through time, his refrain grows: “Who’s to judge?” and “I don’t understand humans.” When finally, blessedly, our young warrior comes to rest again in his own life, he is mightily transformed by all he has seen.

This is Sherman Alexie at his most brilliant–making us laugh while he’s breaking our hearts. Time Out has said that “Alexie, like his characters, is on a modern-day vision quest,” and in Flight he seeks nothing less than an understanding of why human beings hate. Flight is irrepressible, fearless, and groundbreaking Alexie.

Flight is a stunning, powerful look at seemingly unending cycles of violence, betrayal, and revenge.

Told through the voice of Zits, a 15-year-old half-Indian foster child who’s on the fast track toward a bloody end, Flight lets us inside the mind of a character who’s been neglected, abused, and repeatedly failed by the meager systems that are meant to protect him. When we first meet him, Zits is living in yet another foster home with people who don’t care a whit about him. He’s plagued by terrible skin, which is one of countless things that never get fixed for him because he’s just a kid in the system and no one wants to invest the time or money to improve his life. His favorite word is “whatever”, and it sums up his attitude completely. He’s done caring.

When Zits end up in juvie yet again, he meets a strange and magnetic white boy who calls himself Justice, who seems to understand Zits and his struggles in a way no one else ever has. Justice introduces Zits to guns and the means to take revenge for the years of his own miserable life, as well as all the many years of wrongs done to his people.

As Zits pulls the trigger in a heinous act of mass murder, he starts his journey through time and space, landing in the bodies of other people at critical times of violence. In some cases, he’s the one committing atrocities; at other times, he’s a victim. Through each episode, Zits is both witness and participant in acts of great violence, experiencing first-hand the destructive power of people’s quest for vengeance.

Listening to Flight is a particularly chilling experience. Narrator Adam Beach gives Zits an appropriately adolescent voice, yet is also able to shift — as Zits shifts — into an adult FBI agent, an Indian tracker, a downtrodden drunk, and a modern-day cop, each with a distinct personality and style of expression. The narrator’s portrayal of Zits’s increasingly despairing and horrified mindset is powerful. He captures the pain and suffering that Zits sees, as well as the pain of the recovered memories of Zits’s earlier life and the lives of others.

It’s a blessing, I suppose, that Flight is a relatively short book. It’s an intense experience, and doesn’t need to be distilled at all by lengthening the story. Even though the narrative is full of terrible events, Zits’s voice and unique perspective lends the audiobook rare moments of lightness as well. It’s not an easy book or listening experience, but Flight is well worth the emotional investment you’ll have made by the end.

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The details:

Title: Flight
Author: Sherman Alexie
Narrator: Adam Beach
Publisher: Grove Atlantic Black Cat
Publication date: 2007
Audiobook length: 4 hours, 40 minutes
Printed book length: 208 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Thursday Quotables: Harmony

quotation-marks4

Welcome back to Thursday Quotables! This weekly feature is the place to highlight a great quote, line, or passage discovered during your reading each week.  Whether it’s something funny, startling, gut-wrenching, or just really beautifully written, Thursday Quotables is where my favorite lines of the week will be, and you’re invited to join in!

NEW! Thursday Quotables is now using a Linky tool! Be sure to add your link if you have a Thursday Quotables post to share.

harmony

Harmony by Carolyn Parkhurst
(published 2016)

I loved this short but powerful novel about family, trust, hope, and love. My review is here… and here are two small samples that show some of the book’s terrific writing:

Happiness, as it exists in the wild — as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles — is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

I liked this reflection on our digital lives:

Look at your Google history, and there it is, your mind, all its secret curves rolled out flat, like a map. Preoccupations and idle curiosities, mottled hopes and scribbled-out fantasies beating wildly on the screen. Everything you were, are, could be.

What lines made you laugh, cry, or gasp this week? Do tell!

If you’d like to participate in Thursday Quotables, it’s really simple:

  • Write a Thursday Quotables post on your blog. Try to pick something from whatever you’re reading now. And please be sure to include a link back to Bookshelf Fantasies in your post (http://www.bookshelffantasies.com), if you’d be so kind!
  • Click on the linky button (look for the cute froggie face) below to add your link.
  • After you link up, I’d love it if you’d leave a comment about my quote for this week.
  • Be sure to visit other linked blogs to view their Thursday Quotables, and have fun!

Book Review: Harmony

harmony

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dogs of Babel, a taut, emotionally wrenching story of how a seemingly “normal” family could become desperate enough to leave everything behind and move to a “family camp” in New Hampshire–a life-changing experience that alters them forever.

How far will a mother go to save her family? The Hammond family is living in DC, where everything seems to be going just fine, until it becomes clear that the oldest daughter, Tilly, is developing abnormally–a mix of off-the-charts genius and social incompetence. Once Tilly–whose condition is deemed undiagnosable–is kicked out of the last school in the area, her mother Alexandra is out of ideas. The family turns to Camp Harmony and the wisdom of child behavior guru Scott Bean for a solution. But what they discover in the woods of New Hampshire will push them to the very limit. Told from the alternating perspectives of both Alexandra and her younger daughter Iris (the book’s Nick Carraway), this is a unputdownable story about the strength of love, the bonds of family, and how you survive the unthinkable.

You don’t have to be a parent to moved by this gripping story of a loving family trying to do its best for its unusual child — but I think any parent who reads Harmony will be both nodding in recognition and cringing at the pain suffered by the well-meaning parents and their two children.

Alexandra and Josh Hammond are happily married and the parents of two beautiful daughters. But as we first meet the family, daughters Tilly, age 13, and Iris, age 11, are in the back seat of the car as the family makes its way to New Hampshire, having given up their old lives in a last grasp towards normalcy at Camp Harmony.

Camp Harmony is the brainchild of Scott Bean, a charismatic family counselor who seems to have all the answers. And Alexandra is desperate. Tilly is incredibly smart, but she’s wild and impulsive, full of tics and odd habits and obsessions, and lately has become a danger to herself. Even the last resort, super expensive private school for special needs children has finally said that they can no longer care for Tilly appropriately. When Scott Bean’s “Harmonious Parenting” crosses Alexandra’s radar, she becomes more and more convinced that Scott holds all the answers for her family. Ultimately, the family sells everything to invest, along with two other families, in Camp Harmony. The camp will provide a back-to-nature, holistic living experience, where the core families create a nurturing environment for all their children, then host paying families who come on week-long retreats in order to soak up the positive experience and bring it home with them.

Scott Bean is clearly slick and polished, but he’s full of charm when he wants to be and it’s easy to understand how a family with no other options might see him as a light in the darkness. And at first, he seems to have a magic touch with the kids, despite the families’ hesitations over some of the camp rules, such as no electronics, no individual storing of car keys, no alcohol, and all sorts of work assignments and consequences for behavioral infractions.

We see the family’s journey both through Iris’s eyes, as she narrates events starting from the Hammonds’ arrival at camp, and through Alexandra’s, as she describes the bumpy history of her and Josh’s child-rearing and Tilly’s escalating veering off the rails. It’s heartbreaking, truly, to see these good and decent parents doing the best they can, and still having no answers and feeling like they’re losing the ability to even keep their child safe, much less nurtured and encouraged.

There’s yet a third perspective sprinkled occasionally throughout the book — Tilly narrates a few chapters, here and there, which describe an imaginary museum dedicated to Hammond family history. She takes an almost anthropological look at the society and culture of the time:

Either way, though, it was an intriguing period of history; the quaint euphemisms (“special needs,” for example, and “on the spectrum”), the fearmongering and misinformation, the chaos caused by the lack of an agreed-upon medical and therapeutic protocol. The elders lingered on the era’s rudimentary understanding of neuroscience, the dissent within the medical community itself as to nomenclature, classification, and diagnostic criteria. Celebrities giving advice based on superstition, rather than medical fact. The worry that a child’s natural inclinations and tendencies might become more destructive if left untreated. Parents seemed to be afraid of their own children’s brains.

Wow. That last sentence hurts my heart.

Author Carolyn Parkhurst has a way with words that is powerful and descriptive. She makes the reader care about these people. For the story to work, we have to sympathize; we have to understand how a normal, sane set of parents could end up sucked into a situation that revolves around a charismatic leader with increasingly bizarre rules and tests for loyalty. Sounds cultish? Yup, it does. But the wonder of Harmony is that we can see it happen, and even as we tell ourselves that they should have seen it coming and we would never allow ourselves to get sucked in like that… well, how do we know? For people at the end of their rope, desperate measures may not seem so crazy after all.

Importantly, for this story to really work, I think it’s important that we care about Iris and Tilly as individuals, and the book gives them powerful, wonderful voices. The girls are clearly bright and full of passion. Tilly is amazing. Yes, she would drive you crazy if she was your big sister, and I can’t imagine having to deal with some of her more extreme behavior, such as her non-stop sexual comments or her unpredictable meltdowns. But at the same time, she’s powered by an inner curiosity and light, and we’re left hoping that her life may improve, that she’ll find a way to transition from her difficult adolescence into someone who can function in a demanding world.

As I mentioned, the writing in Harmony is just beautiful. The descriptions of the land, the family dynamics, the fears and hopes of new parents, and the blossoming and maturing of love within a marriage are all so lovely. Here’s a small moment at a wedding, as the DJ has all married couples start a romantic dance, then calls off the years until only the longest-married couples remain:

You’re still safe; it’s fifteen years since you stood where that girl in the white dress is standing. Here’s what you have in common with the couples still moving around you: you know, all of you, what these newlyweds are in for, these starry-eyed fledglings who think this is the moment where everything good begins. You’re dancing alongside veterans of wars and miscarriages and a thousand day-today disappointments. You cling to your husband, happy in his arms until it’s time to move to the side, to make way for couples who have lived through even more.

Harmony is an unusual, lovely, disturbing, emotionally wrenching book about families and love. Check it out.

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The details:

Title: Harmony
Author: Carolyn Parkhurst
Publisher: Pamela Dorman Books
Publication date: August 2, 2016
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Library

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Book Review: Small Great Things

small great things

Ruth Jefferson is a labor and delivery nurse at a Connecticut hospital with more than twenty years’ experience. During her shift, Ruth begins a routine checkup on a newborn, only to be told a few minutes later that she’s been reassigned to another patient. The parents are white supremacists and don’t want Ruth, who is African American, to touch their child. The hospital complies with their request, but the next day, the baby goes into cardiac distress while Ruth is alone in the nursery. Does she obey orders or does she intervene?

Ruth hesitates before performing CPR and, as a result, is charged with a serious crime. Kennedy McQuarrie, a white public defender, takes her case but gives unexpected advice: Kennedy insists that mentioning race in the courtroom is not a winning strategy. Conflicted by Kennedy’s counsel, Ruth tries to keep life as normal as possible for her family—especially her teenage son—as the case becomes a media sensation. As the trial moves forward, Ruth and Kennedy must gain each other’s trust, and come to see that what they’ve been taught their whole lives about others—and themselves—might be wrong.

With incredible empathy, intelligence, and candor, Jodi Picoult tackles race, privilege, prejudice, justice, and compassion—and doesn’t offer easy answers. Small Great Things is a remarkable achievement from a writer at the top of her game.

 

This is another example of a book that I tore through and couldn’t put down… but with time passing after finishing the book, I find my reaction to it shifting the more I think about it.

The story itself is completely absorbing. We have three point-of-view characters: Ruth, the African-American nurse; Turk, the White Supremacist father; and Kennedy, the white public defender who describes herself early on as someone who doesn’t see color (race) at all.

It’s an interesting approach. We often see the same sets of interactions through more than one person’s eyes, so that when Kennedy makes a point about how supportive she is and how she’s devoted herself to defending people of color, Ruth perceives these statements as coming from a woman of privilege who does not even recognize how her privilege pervades her own life. This leads to interactions throughout the book in which Kennedy is caught short, forced to recognize the unacknowledged racism that informs her life, despite considering herself a force for good and a champion of social justice.

Picoult makes many good and important points in this novel about the way privilege and racism go hand in hand, and how people with privilege seem not to recognize that for one person to succeed because of their skin color and economic status, someone else must not. Where I think Picoult is on somewhat shaky ground is in her chapters using Ruth’s POV. While any author should be able to write convincingly through the voice of his/her characters, whether or not they have anything in common personally with those characters, the use of Ruth’s voice here occasionally made me uncomfortable.

Should a white author be able to write as a black character? Yes, of course. And yet, so much of Ruth’s POV is focused on her experiences as a black woman, explaining how her life has been shaped by boxes society assigns her and the implicit racism in her daily encounters. At some points, it started to feel like appropriation to me. Picoult is essentially explaining blackness to her readers — presumably, a mostly white audience — and it can feel disingenuous.

At the same time, I understand from a few blog mentions I’ve seen that the publisher made early copies of the novel available without the author being disclosed (the concept was #ReadWithoutPrejudice), and I wonder about that experience. Might I have felt differently about Ruth’s voice if I didn’t know the identity of the author? It’s possible.

On the other hand, I didn’t have a problem with her portrayal of Turk, the white supremacist who is also a grieving father and devoted, loving husband. Understanding from within his mind how his life has led him to this point and how he became such a strong believer and advocate for hate is fascinating and informative, and also scary as hell.

Kennedy feels like a pretty typical Picoult lawyer. She’s a working mother, a dedicated professional looking for her opportunity to take on a case she feels passionately about, and thinks she knows about justice in America by virtue of her work as a public defender. Ruth forces her to confront her own assumptions and biases and tear down a bit of the wall that keeps her from seeing just how her white privilege has enabled her to be the person she is now.

In terms of the plot, it’s a doozy of a set-up. At the parents’ request, a note is added to the baby’s medical file saying that no African American personnel are to touch the baby. But Ruth is the only African American staff member in the labor and delivery ward, so this is clearly an order targeted specifically at Ruth, and only Ruth. I wish the book had explored the legalities of this a bit more. Hospitals honor patients’ requests, when reasonable — but this seems so blatantly unreasonable that it never should have stood as an order to begin with.

I had a hard time accepting that the criminal case could or would go forward as described. There was no evidence against Ruth to begin with, and the rush to judgment against her seems simply unrealistic. I just wasn’t convinced at all by the set-up of the legal case.

Further, Kennedy tells Ruth repeatedly that race is never brought into the courtroom — that it’s a sure-fire way to alienate the jury, and that it JUST ISN’T DONE. That may be, but I wish Picoult had fleshed this out a bit more with examples or explanations. This becomes a turning point in the trial, and only knowing that it’s not done because Kennedy says so doesn’t really drive home the real-life situation. I wanted to know — is this a plot device, or is this really borne out in real-life courtrooms? As it was written, I wasn’t really convinced, and like Ruth, didn’t buy that there wouldn’t be merit in telling the story as it played out in terms of the race relations of the people involved.

Finally, there’s a plot twist at the very end. I haven’t read every single Jodi Picoult novel, but I’ve read enough to know that a huge twist is pretty standard for her books. I won’t get into what the twist is in Small Great Things, but I will say that I thought it was rather unbelievable and unnecessary. The story didn’t need it, and the timing and delivery were just odd.

Overall, I’d say that Small Great Things is a fast and compelling read, but that it left me feeling like I’d been lectured to in a way that detracts a bit from the power of the story. The story itself is complicated and twisty, although there are so many side elements thrown in (the charismatic TV personality, the darker skinned sister who chooses to refuse the path that Ruth has taken, the wealthy white family that Ruth’s mother worked for as a maid for 50 years) that by the end, the courtroom scenes, which should be the dramatic climax of the book, feel a little rushed and curtailed.

From reading the author’s notes at the end of the book, it’s clear that Picoult poured her heart and soul into her research for this book, and has embarked on her own personal journey to recognize the inherent racism that’s a part of white privilege. I don’t doubt her sincerity at all, but all this earnestness doesn’t necessarily translate into great fiction. When the storyline takes a back seat to the message, it can start feeling overly preachy. I was fascinated by the unfolding story and become involved in Ruth’s struggles and her quest for true justice, but the use of POVs and the shoe-horning in of everything Picoult has learned about race in America weaken the power of the legal drama at the center of the narrative.

Still, I’d say that Picoult’s fanbase will of course love Small Great Things, and I’d recommend it to others as well. Jodi Picoult’s books are always thought-provoking, and she’s a master when it comes to taking even abhorrent characters and showing their humanity. She lets us see Turk and his wife as bereaved parents, and their pain is no less real and heartfelt than anyone else’s, despite the fact that they’re absolutely revolting in every other way. This, I think, is a great example of the power of Picoult’s writing: She takes us inside lives and minds we might otherwise never see, and always manages to show us the sparks of humanity to be found in the most unexpected places.

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The details:

Title: Small Great Things
Author: Jodi Picoult
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: October 11, 2016
Length: 480 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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