Book Review: Love and Other Consolation Prizes

From the bestselling author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet comes a powerful novel, inspired by a true story, about a boy whose life is transformed at Seattle’s epic 1909 World’s Fair.

For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World’s Fair feels like a gift. But only once he’s there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off–a healthy boy “to a good home.”

The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam’s precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known–and against all odds, this new sporting life gives him the sense of home he’s always desired.

But as the grande dame succumbs to an occupational hazard and their world of finery begins to crumble, all three must grapple with hope, ambition, and first love.

Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle’s second World’s Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.

Against a rich backdrop of post-Victorian vice, suffrage, and celebration, Love and Other Consolations is an enchanting tale about innocence and devotion–in a world where everything, and everyone, is for sale.

Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a truly lovely look at memories, connections, and the complicated ways in which families are formed.

We meet Ernest as an adult in 1969, as the World’s Fair (with its brand-spanking-new Space Needle) is getting underway in Seattle. Ernest is living apart from his beloved wife Gracie because of a disorder that has stolen most of her memories and leaves her highly agitated whenever Ernest is around. As he sees the city preparing for the spectacle of the World’s Fair, he’s brought back to his memories of 1909, when he fell in love with two very different girls during a visit to the Alaska Yukon Pacific Expo, held at the very same place.

Ernest’s earliest memories are horrific — his life as a starving child in China whose mother gives him away because she knows she can’t care for him. He’s basically sold as chattel and carted across the sea to America, where he moves through a succession of charity homes and schools, always an outsider due to his interracial heritage. Equally horrible is the way in which his patron offers him off as a raffle prize, a humiliating experience for Ernest which ultimately leads to the happiest years of his life. As a 12-year-old servant in the Tenderloin brothel, he’s treated kindly and given a home, surrounded by the upstairs girls and the servants, all of whom shower him with love and make him feel for the very first time as if he truly belongs.

At the Tenderloin, he forms a deep attachment to both Fahn, a Japanese girl a few years older than him who works as a servant, and Maisie, the tomboy daughter of the house madam who seems destined to follow in her mother’s footsteps. The three of them form a tight-knit unit, and stick together through unexpected changes to their happy home.

Author Jamie Ford keeps us guessing until close to the end. We know that Ernest loved both girls as a young boy, and that he ended up married to one, but he manages to avoid revealing the answer without any unnecessary gimmicks. It works; both girls love Ernest and have special relationships with him. We can tell how much they all care for one another, with the purity of an adolescent friendship that hasn’t bloomed into outright romance.

Mixed in with Ernest’s memories of the early 20th century are scenes from 1969, as he begins to share pieces of his past with his grown daughter, revealing his own secrets but wanting to preserve his wife’s. As the novel progresses, the entire family is changed by some of the truths that begin to be revealed.

He drew a deep breath. Memories are narcotic, he thought. Like the array of pill bottles that sit cluttered on my nightstand. Each dose, carefully administred, use as directed. Too much and they become dangerous. Too much and they’ll stop your heart.

The writing in Love and Other Consolation Prizes is beautiful. Through rich descriptions, we get a true sense of Seattle in the early 20th century, with the flavors of its neighborhoods, the personalities and politics of its citizens, and the diversity and tensions springing from so many different people living in such close proximity to one another.

The descriptions of Ernest’s time at the Tenderloin really shine. The brothel isn’t tawdry; it’s an upscale establishment, frequented by the upper crust of Seattle society, with girls who receive dance, elocution, and Latin lessons in order to be able to entertain and converse intelligently with the clientele. The people of the Tenderloin are a family, and it’s only Madam Flora’s illness that brings an end to the idyllic days there.

Likewise, the more horrible aspects of Ernest’s past — the memories from China and the sea journey, especially — are painted for us in language evocative of the experiences as they would have been felt and remembered by a child. These sections of the book are upsetting and feel quite real, but since we know from the start that Ernest survived and ultimately thrived, the bad parts never overwhelm the more upbeat parts of the story.

I highly recommend Love and Other Consolation Prizes. As historical fiction, it succeeds in bringing the reader into the world of Seattle in both 1909 and 1969, tied together nicely by the World’s Fair at each of these two times. And as a story of human relationships and the complications of love, it simply shines. Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a gorgeously written book that tells a fascinating tale, and in my opinion, is one of 2017’s must-reads.

Interested in this author? Check out my review of his first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

_________________________________________

The details:

Title: Love and Other Consolation Prizes
Author: Jamie Ford
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Publication date: September 12, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Save

Save

Save

Save

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Book Review: Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Huh. I just now realized that I’ve been committing hyper-punctuation in regard to this book, whose title does in fact include a comma and an apostrophe, but not a question mark — which I have egregiously added in several tweets and emails. Mea culpa.

Be that as it may, I have to say that I just adored Where’d You Go, Bernadette. (See? No question mark). Author Maria Semple has crafted a social satire that is uproariously funny, hits on a ton of memes and flashpoints of today’s hyper-plugged in society, and yet is also quite touching and surprisingly sweet in places.

Given the title, it’s not a spoiler to say that the plot revolves around events leading up to the disappearance of 50-year-old Bernadette Fox, once a brilliant rising star in the world of architecture, now an eccentric, possibly agoraphobic mother and housewife, whose life is one long string of odd behaviors. Bernadette, her 15-year-old super-talented daughter Bee, and her workaholic Microsoft exec husband Elgin, live in a run-down former reform school for girls atop a Seattle hill. The house is falling apart at the seams, literally, as blackberry vines force their way up through the foundations and the damp ceilings and walls crumble around them. (Keep an eye on those blackberry vines — they’re key to some early developments that lead to a disaster at once appalling and hilarious.)

Bee attends the Galer Street School, described in its mission statement as “a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet.” Children are graded on a scale of “Surpasses Excellence”, “Achieves Excellence”, and “Working Toward Excellence”. Bernadette is happy that her daughter is thriving, but hates everything about Seattle, including the meddling, fussy, over-involved parents of the school, whom she refers to as gnats. Things go from bad to worse when Bernadette’s neighbor Audrey hosts a prospective parents brunch at her home in an attempt to lure “Mercedes Parents” to their Suburu-level school. To say that Bernadette and Audrey don’t quite get along would be the understatement of the year.

Further complications: Bernadette has hired a virtual assistant named Manjula to handle all of her personal business by internet — everything from travel plans to prescriptions to ordering clothing and household repairs. Before you can say “identity theft”, Bernadette has provided Manjula with her entire family’s bank account numbers, birthdates, passport numbers, and social security numbers.

When Bee comes home one day with a report card full of S grades and a brochure for a trip to Antarctica, events and disasters begin to snowball. Neither parent says no, plans for this exotic trip are set in motion, and Bernadette soon begins to fear that she’s in way over her head. By the time the date of the trip rolls around, psychiatrists, FBI agents, Microsoft admins, school chums, and gardeners have all played a role in the unfolding crisis… and Bernadette disappears without a trace.

Precocious, talented, determined Bee is left behind to put the pieces together, and what we’ve been reading all along is Bee’s compilation of documents pertaining to these events. Where’d You Go, Bernadette is told via emails, faxes, school reports, letters, magazine articles, and captain’s logs; Bee has assembled everything she can that may shed light on her mother’s disappearance, and through quick thinking and connecting of dots, believes she may have found pieces of the puzzle that will lead to answers about her mother.

Let me just say that I enjoyed this book immensely. The writing is crisp and deft, and the author does an outstanding job of capturing some of the nuttiness that is so deeply ingrained in today’s world of helicopter parenting, the cult of self-esteem, the worship of tech, and the increasing isolation experienced by individuals in a world of constant “connectitude”. One character writes impassioned screeds about her Victims Against Victimhood support group, whose members TORCH one another (Time Out! Reality Check) when they speak in victim-lingo; Bernadette’s husband Elgie is revered because he gave the 4th-most watched TEDTalk ever; the school hosts a constant series of concerts and events featuring multiculturalism so extreme that it’s practically a religious devotion. This all rings true in a way that is both slightly sad and hilariously funny.

And yet, there is an underlying sweetness in much of this story as well. As the book unfolds, some of the most self-deluded characters find ways to acknowledge hard truths. The bad guys aren’t necessarily all that bad after all. What seems charming and eccentric is revealed to be a cover for deeper problems that must be addressed. The perfect schools may not be what all children need. Little by little, the beliefs held by the characters at the start of the book fall away, until just about all find their way toward something closer to honesty and decency.

My only quibble about Where’d You Go, Bernadette has to do with the last section of the book, which is told mostly through Bee’s narration and loses some of the oddball charm built into the stream of constant emails and faxes. At times, this section reads a bit too much like a travelogue and loses a bit of the punch provided throughout so much of the book. Still, this is a minor complaint; the book wraps up in a way that’s completely satisfying yet still surprising, and I walked away a) smiling and b) resolved to read whatever Maria Semple decides to write next.

If you enjoy quirky fiction with a bite, this is a book for you.