Book Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane

Title: Ask Again, Yes
Author: Mary Beth Keane
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 28,2019
Length: 390 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

How much can a family forgive?

A profoundly moving novel about two neighboring families in a suburban town, the bond between their children, a tragedy that reverberates over four decades, the daily intimacies of marriage, and the power of forgiveness.

Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope, two rookie cops in the NYPD, live next door to each other outside the city. What happens behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne—sets the stage for the explosive events to come.

Ask Again, Yes is a deeply affecting exploration of the lifelong friendship and love that blossoms between Francis and Lena’s daughter, Kate, and Brian and Anne’s son, Peter. Luminous, heartbreaking, and redemptive, Ask Again, Yes reveals the way childhood memories change when viewed from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story, while tested by echoes from the past, is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

In Ask Again, Yes, we follow the trajectories of two families over the years, seeing how their connections follow them and affect their entire lives.

Kate and Peter, born within months of each other, grow up as next door neighbors and best friends. Their fathers served on the police force together, and the families’ background are entwined in shared history and parallel origins. For Kate and Peter, they have no memory of life without the other. But a tragic, violent incident when they’re fourteen shatters both families’ lives, and cuts short the romantic relationship just starting to bloom between Kate and Peter.

Ask Again, Yes traces the roots of the family dynamics at play, and then follows Kate and Peter as their lives diverge and then come back together.

There’s a lot to unpack here — themes of mental illness, alcoholism and addiction, infidelity, parenthood and abandonment, the ups and downs of a long marriage — and yet, the story for the most part left me cold.

This story of family and suburban drama covers a lot of years, but feels diffuse somehow. The POV shifts between characters, so we view events through Kate and Peter’s eyes, but also through the experiences of their parents and others. Perhaps as a result, we often don’t stick with one character long enough to see an event through, and there seem to be some odd choices in terms of which events we experience in detail and which only get referred to in passing or in summary.

There are certainly some tragic occurrences, and places where tragedy could possibly have been avoided if appropriate mental health resources had either been available or sought out. I never really bought into the central love story between Kate and Peter, and the troubles they experience later in their marriage felt sort of shoe-horned in for me.

I read Ask Again, Yes as a book group read, and I’m thinking that I probably wouldn’t have picked this one up on my own. That said, the relationships are complex and thought-provoking — it’s simply not my preferred subject matter, and the writing didn’t engage or move me.

Still, I look forward to the book group discussion later this week. Maybe I’ll find more to appreciate once I hear what my book friends have to say about it!

Take A Peek Book Review: The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker

“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)

In an isolated college town in the hills of Southern California, a freshman girl stumbles into her dorm room, falls asleep—and doesn’t wake up. She sleeps through the morning, into the evening. Her roommate, Mei, cannot rouse her. Neither can the paramedics who carry her away, nor the perplexed doctors at the hospital. Then a second girl falls asleep, and then another, and panic takes hold of the college and spreads to the town. As the number of cases multiplies, classes are canceled, and stores begin to run out of supplies. A quarantine is established. The National Guard is summoned.

Mei, an outsider in the cliquish hierarchy of dorm life, finds herself thrust together with an eccentric, idealistic classmate. Two visiting professors try to protect their newborn baby as the once-quiet streets descend into chaos. A father succumbs to the illness, leaving his daughters to fend for themselves. And at the hospital, a new life grows within a college girl, unbeknownst to her—even as she sleeps. A psychiatrist, summoned from Los Angeles, attempts to make sense of the illness as it spreads through the town. Those infected are displaying unusual levels of brain activity, more than has ever been recorded. They are dreaming heightened dreams—but of what?

Written in gorgeous prose, The Dreamers is a breathtaking novel that startles and provokes, about the possibilities contained within a human life—in our waking days and, perhaps even more, in our dreams.

My Thoughts:

While I love the premise of this book, the execution screams “literary fiction” rather than “science fiction”, and that may be why The Dreamers didn’t thrill me in the end. It’s an awesome set-up: A mysterious illness begins spreading through a remote college town, with no known cause or cure. People infected simply fall asleep, and stay that way. Without medical care, they’d die of malnutrition and dehydration, and soon the hospitals and emergency triage centers are overflowing with these strange sleepers. As the weeks drag on, those who remain awake find themselves trapped within the quarantined area, living in an eerie world of deserted homes and stray dogs.

Should be exciting, right? And yet, the narrative isn’t focused on the epidemiology or the science, but rather on the individuals, their relationships, and their meditations on the meaning of life, connection, time, and reality. How do we know that what we think is reality isn’t really a dream? How do we know that our dreams aren’t an alternate reality? When does the passing of time represent a loss? Can we mourn what we’ve never had? Is it more ethical to save many strangers than to save one person that you love? On and on.

While there are some interesting developments and characters, the metaphor-heavy presentation didn’t particularly work for me. As with this author’s previous novel (The Age of Miracles), I felt that a nifty sci-fi scenario became the canvas for a meditative literary piece, and that just wasn’t what I was hoping for. Perhaps this author just isn’t for me. I don’t regret reading The Dreamers, but I can’t help wondering how the story might have gone if written by a more action-driven, science-driven sci-fi writer.

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The details:

Title: The Dreamers
Author: Karen Thompson Walker
Publisher: Random House
Publication date: January 15, 2019
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Science fiction/comtemporary fiction
Source: I won this book in a Goodreads giveaway

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Armchair BEA: Literary Fiction

And for today’s Armchair BEA topic: Literary Fiction — how do you define it? What are some great examples?

While I’m tempted to give the same answer as I did for definining classics — “I know it when I see it” — I’ll try to actually say a bit more. For me, when I think of literary fiction, I think of books in which the language itself is a key piece of the reading experience. Interesting or unusual word choices, lyrical phrasing, thoughtful use of symbolism, a unique approach to sentence structure — these are all elements that elevate a book for me into the realm of literature. On top of the language itself is the subject matter and how it’s presented. Literary fiction can have any topic, any setting, any type of character — but should have more going on in it than heavy action or a pulse-pounding plot. Literary fiction makes me think about what I’m reading — not just in terms of “what will happen next?” — but really think about the deeper meaning of events and choices, the way the characters express themselves, the signs and symbols that might add another layer to the plot itself. Finally, I tend to equate literary fiction with beauty, especially in terms of beautiful writing and beautiful descriptions.

Some of the best books I’ve read in the past couple of years that I would consider literary fiction are:

  • The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
  • Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
  • Doc by Mary Doria Russell
  • The Round House by Louise Erdrich
  • The Brides of Rollrock Island by Margo Lanagan
  • The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

Another part of today’s prompt from the Armchair BEA organizers is:

Name a novel that hasn’t received a lot of buzz that definitely deserves it.

I think I’ll switch that up a bit and mention an author who deserves much more attention than I think she gets, and that’s Mary Doria Russell, author of five amazing novels (so far!), on topics ranging from space exploration to WWII to the old West to Lawrence of Arabia. What makes each and every one of her novels a literary masterpiece, in my mind, is her incredible talent for choosing just the right words to express a feeling, a mood, a setting, an emotion. Her writing is beautiful and never fails to just slay me; in fact, I wrote a post about the emotional impact her book The Sparrow had on me when I reread it last year.

So, literary fiction. How do you define it? Are you a fan? And what are your favorites?

Thanks for stopping by! Don’t miss my giveaway today, ending soon!