Tag Archives: literary fiction

The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

Review (Amazon):

At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that is not meant to be read…

My darling Cecilia,
If you’re reading this, then I’ve died…

Imagine your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not only the life you have built together, but the lives of others as well. And then imagine that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive…

Cecilia Fitzpatrick has achieved it all—she’s an incredibly successful businesswoman, a pillar of her small community, a devoted wife and mother. Her life is as orderly and spotless as her home. But that letter is about to change everything—and not just for her. There are other women who barely know Cecilia—or each other—but they, too, are about to feel the earth-shattering repercussions of her husband’s secret.

My Review (MAJOR SPOILERS!!!):

Executive Summary: deeper than first glance

This is our literary fiction for the year. It’s a bit of a love story (stories?), a bit of a whodunnit, but mostly just a people drama. It’s set in Australia, mostly Sydney, and it has multiple quickly intersecting stories.

The “main” family that the book follows is perfect wife Cecilia and her husband John-Paul and their three children–Esther (a Berlin Wall enthusiast), Isabel and Polly (the outspoken beautiful youngster). One day, by accident, Cecilia finds a letter in her attic addressed “For my wife, Cecilia Fitzpatrick to be opened only in the event of my death”.

We’re also introduced to Tess, her husband Will, her cousin Felicity, and her son Liam. Tess and Felicity have always been closer than sisters, and apparently even closer. After Felicity lost a ton of weight in the last year (after always being the fat girl), Will and Felicity fell in love. They announce to Tess who, understandably, freaks out and decides to take Liam back to Sydney (from Melbourne) to stay with her mother.

Next chapter, we meet Rachel. Rachel is a widow, and her only son Rob brought her over to tell her that he, his wife Lauren, and their son Jacob were going to be moving to New York for a few years. Rachel is overwhelmingly devastated. She had had a daughter, Janie,  who had been murdered many years earlier, and that pain had never healed. She feels like Jacob is all she has. Meanwhile she never really lets Rob or Lauren into her grief.

We cut back to Cecilia who brings up the letter she found when she knocked over some boxes in their crowded attic to her husband who is on a business trip. She can tell that he is trying to sound nonchalant, but that there’s more to it.

The following day, the connection between the 3 stories makes sense. Tess goes with her mother, Lucy to drop Liam off at his new school. Cecilia’s children go there as well, and Polly is in Liam’s grade. Rachel is the school’s secretary. While at the school, Tess also meets the gym teacher, Connor Whitby, a man who she dated years prior and who used to be an accountant. As soon as they meet, there’s obvious sexual tension.

Cecilia is going through all the things in her mind. She and John-Paul have not have sex in a year. Is he gay? Polly mentioned that Jean-Paul looks at Isabel strangely. Is he a pedophile? Esther saw him crying in the shower. Is he depressed? He tried to commit suicide once when he was younger…? She decides that she is in fact going to open the letter that evening after her Tupperware party she’s hosting. She volunteers to drive Rachel home from the party (her first one she’s attended) and arrives at home to find that John-Paul is home early. He asks her if she has opened it and she says no, but once he goes to bed, she opens it.

SPOILER! Stop reading here if you intend to read the book!!!

 

In the letter, John-Paul writes that he in fact is the person who killed Janie. They were secretly going out, not boyfriend/girlfriend, although that’s what he wanted. One day, Janie meets him at the park to break it off and tell him that there’s another boy who she’s more interested in. He’s furious and instead of being sympathetic, she laughs. He didn’t mean to kill her. He just attacked her in rage and before he knew what he was doing, she was dead. The police never suspected him because they didn’t know he was involved at all. He went to a different school, and Janie hadn’t told anyone about him. John-Paul said that he would have confessed had anyone else been accused for the crime, but the only person of interest was Connor Whitby and he had an alibi.

Welp, OK. So a) I figured out the secret ahead of time (because really what else could it be? there’s only one unsolved mystery in the story) and b) now what?! The book to me got really dull after this because the letter was opened less than halfway through!

So the book progresses that Tess begins sleeping with Connor. Rachel finds a video of Janie and Connor, and she turns it into the police as new evidence. She is convinced that Connor killed Janie and it just eats her alive seeing him at the school every day. Cecilia and John-Paul try to have a normal life, but Cecilia is having a lot of trouble keeping it together (at least to the perfect mom level she had previously).

And then it’s Good Friday. Apparently no one does anything at all on Good Friday in Australia except eat hot cross buns with lots of butter. (I thought hot cross buns were from a nursery rhyme and weren’t really a thing any more.)  So on Good Friday, Tess tells Connor that she and Liam will come to the park to fly a kite. Unfortunately, Felicity appears earlier in the day to tell her that she and Will are splitting up and he’s on his way to meet her to try to get Tess back. By the time she lets Connor know that they can’t meet him, he’s already at the park. Cecilia, John-Paul and the girls are also there on their bikes and Polly spots Connor, one of her favorite teachers, and races to catch him before he heads off. Unfortunately Good Friday is also the anniversary of Janie’s death. Rachel has spent the morning with Rob and Lauren visiting the grave site before getting the police call that they are not reopening the case due to her new evidence as it wasn’t substantial enough. All of those things pieced together lead to Rachel seeing Connor–the man she believes killed her daughter–about to walk into traffic and blinded with rage, she hits the accelerator and hits…Polly who is trying to get Connor’s attention.

Polly is rushed to the hospital, where she is in critical condition. She ends up having to lose her right arm below the elbow because it couldn’t be salvaged. Rachel is there too getting checked up and she goes to try to apologize to Cecilia and explains that she was enraged seeing Connor because he killed her daughter. At that moment, Cecilia confesses that it was actually John-Paul who had done it. And then the world was right and everyone got on with their lives.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

The book was fine. It had some ups and downs. The whole underlying premise though that this stupid boy murdered a girl who wasn’t even dating him because she nervous giggled at him. It makes me want to kill him. She died. His daughter only lost an arm. It’s not the same. I thought the prose itself was good so that helped a little, but all in all the story felt a bit like it was trying to prove a point then be realistic.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review

My Name is Lucy Barton – Elizabeth Strout

Review (Amazon): Lucy Barton is recovering slowly from what should have been a simple operation. Her mother, to whom she hasn’t spoken for many years, comes to see her. Gentle gossip about people from Lucy’s childhood in Amgash, Illinois, seems to reconnect them, but just below the surface lie the tension and longing that have informed every aspect of Lucy’s life: her escape from her troubled family, her desire to become a writer, her marriage, her love for her two daughters. Knitting this powerful narrative together is the brilliant storytelling voice of Lucy herself: keenly observant, deeply human, and truly unforgettable.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: blah

Yes, that is two “blahs” in a row. Not great. This book is our literary fiction book for the year, and it might actually just be that I don’t really like literary fiction. On the plus side, this is a very quick read. I just happened to really dislike Lucy Barton.

As you probably figured out, the main character is a woman named Lucy Barton who is presumably in her early 30s. She lives in New York City and is married with two children. For some unknown reason she is in the hospital and has been for a little while when her mother arrives.

Lucy and her family (mom, dad, brother, sister) grew up very poor. Lucy’s mom did sewing and alterations and her dad, who had PTSD (although this wasn’t described in extensive detail) wasn’t able to hold a steady job. They had no TV and little climate control. Lucy would stay at school late to take advantage of the heat and space and did very well–well enough to go to college.

She ended up getting married to what seemed like a upper middle class husband and basically spent her entire life in complete denial of where she ended up. It was like mentally she couldn’t believe where she was and seemed somewhat intent on sabotaging it. She was separated from the rest of her family mostly due to the vast difference in their current statuses so it was a surprise that her husband (who doesn’t come to see her much because he hates hospitals) called her mother to come see her.

When her mother arrives, Lucy interacts with her through gossip and stories about people who they used to know. When she tries to bring up painful childhood memories, her mother moves on without addressing them or she simply just cannot remember what Lucy is talking about. However through these stories we learn a slight bit more about Lucy and her life. She wants to be a writer, attending writing workshops with an author she loves. She also has basically only one friend in New York City, an older gay man named Jeremy who ended up dying of AIDS while she was in the hospital.

Eventually Lucy gets out of the hospital from whatever mysterious illness she had. She still doesn’t keep in touch with her mother because she is busy with her own life and children and her best-selling novel (but also mostly just because she doesn’t really want to). She only visits her 9 years later when her mother is dying. She sees her father there as well, and he dies the following year. When Lucy’s children go off to college, she and her husband end up getting divorced. Lucy ends up getting married to a man who also grew up in poverty but now is a cellist in the Philharmonic Symphony.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

This book was not for me. If it had been any longer, I would have not made it through it. It was challenging to even write a review for it because literally nothing happened. I probably could have summed it up in about 3 sentences. When we discussed it at book club, we didn’t really seem to be able to answer any questions because the story was just so vague and focused on a bunch of trivial stories instead of anything important. Although, maybe that is the point? I don’t know.

Leave a comment

Filed under 2.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

Review (Amazon): Kirsten Raymonde will never forget the night Arthur Leander, the famous Hollywood actor, had a heart attack on stage during a production of King Lear. That was the night when a devastating flu pandemic arrived in the city, and within weeks, civilization as we know it came to an end.

Twenty years later, Kirsten moves between the settlements of the altered world with a small troupe of actors and musicians. They call themselves The Traveling Symphony, and they have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive. But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who will threaten the tiny band’s existence. And as the story takes off, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, the strange twist of fate that connects them all will be revealed.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: fun

I’ve had this book on my list for quite a while so I’m glad I was actually able to squeeze it into my schedule. I enjoyed it a lot even though it was quite a bit different than I was expecting. It’s a dystopian novel, sure, but it’s really more of a people drama (aka literary fiction) set in the future.

The book jumps back and forth between pre-flu and post-flu. The connection between the two times is Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor who in his later days became a stage actor. The book begins with his last performance in King Lear. He has a heart attack and dies on stage. Arthur’s friend Clark is in charge of calling his ex-wives (all 3) to let them know. That same night, the Georgia flu pandemic arrives in Toronto killing most in its wake.

Post-flu time is measured in years starting with 1. The book starts its story in year 20. By this time, most of the chaos has died down, and people tend to live in towns. Kristen Raymonde is part of The Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel around the Great Lakes area doing Shakespeare performances. Kristen had been on stage and part of the production the night that Arthur died. She was only 8 at the time of the flu so her memory is very hazy regarding anything pre-flu. She does remember Arthur and she always looks for details about him in magazines and newspapers that she finds when they check abandoned buildings for supplies. They go in her pack with her paperweight and Station Eleven comic book that Arthur had given her.

The Symphony arrives in a town that they went to two years prior, and where they left two of their members so that they could have their baby. When they return, they find that the town has changed dramatically and their members have left. When they finally find someone who can tell them where they went, the answer is Severn City, a city in an old airport. They do their performance followed by a speech by the prophet there, and then decide to get out of the strange religious city while they still can. A little ways away, they realize they have a stowaway. A small girl from St. Deborah by the Water was promised to be the prophet’s next wife.

Interspersed with the post-flu “current time” storyline are stories about Arthur. We learn that he was from a small island in British Columbia, moving away to Toronto as soon as he could, but he drops out of college and enrolls in acting classes. He’s good friends with Clark, and they stay friends until Arthur’s death even though they both know they grew apart years before. Arthur’s mother calls him one day to tell him about another girl from their island who just moved to Toronto. She’s seventeen and just enrolled in art school. Arthur agrees to meet with her for lunch, and then waits 7 years before contacting her again. At this point, he is 36 and she is 24 and they very much hit it off. Miranda is in a dead end relationship with an artist who isn’t selling, and she is supporting him. She goes back to her place after dinner and drinks with Arthur where her boyfriend physically abuses her. She shows up at Arthur’s door with her suitcase and the rest is history…until it isn’t.

Miranda is an artsy sort, not used to the pomp and circumstance that Arthur is now used to. They have a house in Hollywood and a Pomeranian and host dinner parties. Miranda likes to draw, and she has a story that she has been working on for years. It’s about Dr. Eleven. Eventually at one of the dinner parties, Miranda realizes that Arthur is having an affair with a woman Elizabeth. She spills the beans to the paparazzo outside who eventually will be the EMT who performs CPR on a dying Arthur. Miranda and Arthur divorce and he marries Elizabeth. They have a son, Tyler, but eventually they also divorce.

Back in current time, the Symphony are heading towards Severn City to find the members they left. Severn City is also where Clark lives. Clark was on a flight with Elizabeth (Arthur’s second wife) and Arthur’s son as one of the last flights before the flu fully hit and they detoured to Severn City. Elizabeth had a hard time coping with the post-flu world, and eventually she and Tyler leave with a religious cult, believing that there must have been a religious reason for the people who were killed and who were spared. Clark remains and is the curator of the Museum of Civilization–an assortment of newspapers, cell phones, high heels etc. within Severn City as it grows into a decent running operation.

En route to the old airport, the Symphony members begin disappearing at their stops. Kristen and August are out one time and when they return, the caravan and the rest of the members have vanished. Kristen and August are terrified at this point, but they continue to head in the direction of the City. They don’t see any signs that the caravan has gone by without them, and eventually they encounter why. The Prophet has been following them because he wants the girl who stowed away. He and his followers are trained assassins and can sneak silently. Luckily Kristen and August are well trained too. They kill the men and free their friend Sayid who  explains a bit more about what is going on. Unfortunately Sayid is hurt so the Prophet easily catches up with the three of them. The Prophet, whose dog is named Luli (the dog in Station Eleven), begins quoting Station Eleven, and Kristen continues the quote which distracts him. Meanwhile, one of his men kills him because he is sick of living the way that he is, but then knowing nothing else, he also kills himself.

They manage to get back to Severn City and reunite with most of the troupe (unfortunately one of Kristen’s best friends and former love interest was killed by the Prophet). They find the two members who had been left years prior, and in general things are good. Kristen meets Clark who knows her by a newspaper interview he read of hers from a few years prior and talks to her about Arthur. They realize that the Prophet was actually Arthur’s son Tyler, but they aren’t sure what ever happened to Elizabeth. Before Kristen leaves to return to the road with the symphony, Clark takes her up to the air traffic control tower. From there, they can see a town in the far distance which has lights! Before leaving, Kristen leaves Clark one of her issues of  Station Eleven for his Museum, and she promises that she will return and switch out the copies so that one is always with her and the other in the museum.

Verdict: 3.5 stars

This book was a fun easy read and the world in the story was easy to get lost in. But I was expecting more science fiction and less people drama. I wanted to know more about the civilization and the science. I really enjoyed the section about when Clark and Elizabeth landed in the airport and how they got started rebuilding civilization, and I wanted more. I don’t know whether the book plans for a sequel, but having the Symphony go to the town with the electricity would be a really interesting idea!

Leave a comment

Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Review

The Speed of Dark -Elizabeth Moon

  Summary (Amazon): In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic adult, is a member of the lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the rewards of medical science. He lives a low-key, independent life. But then he is offered a chance to try a brand-new experimental “cure” for his condition. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music—with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world—shades and hues that others cannot see? Most important, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world . . . and the very essence of who he is.

My Review (SpOiLeRs!):

Executive Summary: almost

So this is our science fiction pick for the year, and it’s not really science fiction. It’s set in a future world where all people who will have autism have been corrected before being born. There is a gap generation who were too old for the full correction, but have had some procedures, allowing them to work and have semi-normal lives. No robots, aliens, or flying cars. Just a story about an autistic man named Lou.

Lou has an apartment, a car, and a job. He works in a job in a special office with only other autists. They have some special perks which the other “normal” employees do not get, but this allows them to fully channel their concentration into their work and find patterns and sequences that others cannot.

A new big boss, Mr. Crenshaw, arrives at the company, and his goal is cutting costs. He decides that this group of autists is too much work, so he comes up with a (really contrived) plan. He is going to cut costs by eliminating the perks that these autists get by making them all sign up for an experimental medical procedure which makes them “normal”. Their direct boss, Mr. Aldrin, who has a severely autistic brother, gets to work foiling his plan.

Speaking of foils, Lou’s main past time is fencing. There’s a group he goes to once a week at Tom and Lucia’s house. It took Lou a while to get the hang of it physically, but he now is quite a good competitor as he can deduce the opponent’s pattern. A bunch of others go to the fencing group, but the story focuses mostly on two–Don and Marjory. Don’s a jerk, and Lou doesn’t really see it. The others defend Lou when Don makes crass jokes about him being a retard, but really this just makes him madder that they like Lou better than they like him. Marjory is a love interest of Lou’s although it takes him a while to realize it. He struggles to understand how to manage that situation, and Tom and Lucia explain to him that “normal” people also have a lot of difficulty in this situation!

His situation at work is getting more dire as he and the others in his group don’t know that their manager is working behind the scenes to fix things, and now Lou appears to be being targeted by someone who has slashed his tires and broken his windshield. The final piece comes when someone leaves an explosive jack in the box inside his car where the battery should be. After only slight investigation, they realize that it’s Don, and he is arrested when he tries to shoot Lou at the grocery store. Lou struggles with this as Don’s punishment is to have his brain altered so that he won’t want to do bad things. Lou has been reading a lot of books that he had borrowed from Lucia about the brain to understand better his own possible treatment, so he additionally knows what will be happening to Don.

It turns out that the big boss is fired when the rest of the C levels find out what he is up to, and the program is off. Mostly. The autists can still have the procedure done if they would like, and one of them does immediately. Lou struggles with deciding whether or not to do it, and then he eventually decides that he will. He awakes from the surgery and originally has no memory. Tom comes to visit him but it takes a few visits for Lou to remember who he is, but eventually he does. He starts to remember his old life, but he decides that he wants to get into a PhD program. He eventually loses touch with his friends from his old live including Marjory.

Verdict: 3 stars

The one thing that I did really like about this book was the glimpse into the mind of an autistic person. Reading some reviews of the book, including one written by a high-functioning autist, suggest that this depiction is actually very realistic. (The author has an autistic son.) However, the actual story of the book I found to be very unrealistic and at times very dull (like the detailed pages and pages about Lou reading about the brain). I thought that aside from Lou, every character felt very flat especially Mr. Crenshaw and Don. It also felt like a snap decision that Lou made in the end, and the book ended so abruptly. And in general, I thought it was quite the stretch of calling it a science fiction book.

Leave a comment

Filed under 3 stars, Book Club, Book Review

In the Company of Others – Jan Karon

   Summary (Amazon): Jan Karon’s new Father Tim series, launched with her New York Times bestselling Home to Holly Springs, thrilled legions of Mitford devotees, and also attracted a whole new set of readers. “Lovely,” said USA Today. “Rejoice!” said The Washington Post.

In this second installment in the series, Father Tim and Cynthia arrive in the west of Ireland, intent on researching his Kavanagh ancestry from the comfort of a charming fishing lodge. The charm, however, is broken entirely when Cynthia startles a burglar and sprains her already-injured ankle. Then a cherished and valuable painting is stolen from the lodge owners, and Cynthia’s pain pales in comparison to the wound at the center of this bitterly estranged Irish family.

In the Company of Others is a moving testament to the desperate struggle to hide the truth at any cost and the powerful need to confess. Of all her winning novels, Jan Karon says this “dark-haired child” is her favorite.

My Review:

Executive Summary: pensive

I borrowed this book for our book club book swap. It’s not a book that I would have picked by myself, which is why book swaps can really be a hit or a miss. In this case, it was a little of both.

The story is about an (American) Episocopal priest, Father (Reverend) Tim Kavanaugh and his wife Cynthia.  My understanding is that this is the second book in the “Father Tim” stories, and it’s one of a bunch of books in “The Mitford Series.” (I may be incorrect. I’m unfamiliar with this author.)

Tim and Cynthia decide to go on vacation to Ireland to a little B&B that Tim had visited many years earlier when he was a bachelor. They are planning to meet with Tim’s cousin and his wife to travel all around Ireland, but things don’t exactly go as planned. While there, Cynthia goes back up to her room and there is an intruder hiding in their wardrobe. He jumps out and flees out the window, but Cynthia is so startled, she turns her ankle and is all but bedridden for most of the trip (conveniently to prolong the story, as she gets better, she slips again setting herself back in recovery).

This mystery followed with the unsettled attitude surrounding nearly every family member of the inn’s owners is the basic premise for the story. The inn is owned by Liam and Anna. Anna’s daughter Bella is also around as well as Anna’s father, William. Liam’s mother and brother live nearby, and there is a great schism in their relationship. At the same time, Cynthia finds a journal written by the original builder of Liam’s mother’s place. So all the stories become intertwined. This honestly was very confusing to me at times because it was very difficult to keep track of all of the characters (as well as the extraneous characters who were also staying at the inn and people who Tim and Cynthia knew from home).

One by one, all of the main characters who were alive (begrudgingly at times) confess what is causing them anguish to either Father Tim or in some cases (Bella) to Cynthia. The reader finds out piecemealed that Anna’s father, William, was in love with Liam’s mother, Evelyn. Back in the day, he was a boxer, and by the time he got some sense into him and came back to her, she was already married and had had Liam’s brother Paddy. Liam was born only 9 months later, causing both Liam and Anna to separately believe that they might be half-siblings. Eleanor had a hard life, being abandoned by William, and then “causing” an explosion which killed her parents and siblings. (She didn’t actually cause the explosion; she merely opened the door causing oxygen to enter the already gas-laden house). She never mentally recovered from this and took out her anguish on everyone in her reach. In her old age, she needs to withdraw from alcohol as her liver is close to failure. During this, she also falls, injuring herself and is bedridden for all of the detox. Some combination of the detox, old age, and Father Tim causes her to repent and make her amends to everyone.

At the same time, the mystery of the intruder, and later in the story, the stolen painting, is traced back to Bella. An angsty teen, she recently moved back in with her mother, and is very unhappy with the lack of music as well as the solitude of the place. A previous employee named Jack Slade (obviously a baddie with a name like that) convinced Bella that he would get some money and take her to London with him. After helping him steal the painting and seeing the after-effect anguish that it had on her mother, Bella turns him in (he’s already in jail for stabbing a guy) and makes amends with Anna and Liam.

After solving all the problems in the area, and Cynthia’s ankle healing enough to be able to travel, Tim and Cynthia head off to Dublin for a few days before heading home, promising to visit again soon.

Verdict: 3 stars

I thought the book overall was good. It was lighthearted, and was not overly forceful on the religious aspects. The main drawback for me on the book was both its length (and associated lack of plot to sustain the length) as well as the overwhelming number of characters. The descriptive sections were great of the main (living) characters. It felt almost as though you knew them and felt like you were at the place. I felt it hard to follow the story of the characters in the journal, and despite one tie-in of the book to the current time, I did not really see the point of it. I wonder if I had read the prior book, if I would have enjoyed this book more.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Club, Book Review

Crazy Rich Asians – Kevin Kwan

  Summary (Amazon): When New Yorker Rachel Chu agrees to spend the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, she envisions a humble family home and quality time with the man she hopes to marry. But Nick has failed to give his girlfriend a few key details. One, that his childhood home looks like a palace; two, that he grew up riding in more private planes than cars; and three, that he just happens to be the country’s most eligible bachelor.

On Nick’s arm, Rachel may as well have a target on her back the second she steps off the plane, and soon, her relaxed vacation turns into an obstacle course of old money, new money, nosy relatives, and scheming social climbers.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: fun

This book is kind of a beach read. There’s not a whole lot of substance to it, and frankly the general story has been told before. Poor girl begins dating secret rich guy and eventually finds out about his wealth (and all the family drama that goes with it). However, the people in this book were various types of Chinese descendants which made the story interesting for me. (Also the author has noted that the book was designed to appeal to North Americans)

The book itself has a family tree at the front for reference as the various family lines can be a bit confusing. Essentially three family lines, all super rich, are intertwined in the story. However, the main part of the story is about a couple in their late twenties–Nick and Rachel. They are both professors at NYU. Rachel is an “ABC” (American born Chinese) from California. Nick is from Singapore. Since Nick’s family is abroad, Rachel has never met them in the two years that they have been dating, but they have a great opportunity of going to Singapore for the summer for Nick’s best friend’s wedding.

Nick’s family is extremely wealthy, but he has kept this hidden from Rachel as he has sort of been opposed to it for his adult life. He works in a job that pays very little in a location that is isolated from the rest of his family. He hasn’t even told his mother that he has been dating anyone because he doesn’t want all the questions. She inevitably finds out prior to him telling her. She initially thinks that Rachel is going to be one of those “Taiwanese tornadoes” but eventually finds out that Rachel is *gasp* a mainlander (aka from actual China) which obviously means she’s a gold digger who is only there to steal Nick’s inheritance. Eleanor (Nick’s mother) gets a PI to investigate Rachel’s family.

When they arrive in Singapore, after traveling first class, they are greeted by the engaged couple–Colin and Araminta and go to a hawker center (food court of sorts that they have in Singapore). Everything seems like it’s going great. The following day when Nick goes to help out with Colin for wedding details, Rachel heads out with her college friend Peik Lin whose family lives in Singapore. Peik Lin and her family are fairly nouveau riche and are all about keeping up with the Joneses (probably a different saying for Asians). Regardless, Peik Lin knows EXACTLY who Colin and Araminta are and cannot believe that Rachel is going to essentially Singapore’s royal wedding. But Peik Lin has no idea who Nick is and she isn’t sure why since she knows everyone! This is when Rachel starts to realize that there is more to things than she initially suspected.

Rachel goes to Araminta’s bachelorette party where she is astounded by the lavishness–a private island. All attendees can pick out clothing items from an exclusive boutique that the bride’s mother has paid for. While there, someone steals her clothes and puts a gutted fish in her bag. Some of these girls think she’s a poor gold digger who is after one of their own.

Once Nick and Rachel return from their respective parties, Eleanor is finally back from her spy mission. She has dinner at her place and invites all her snobby friends including one of the girls from the bachelorette party who all but admits to the fish incident. Things are not going very well.

As the days of celebration for the wedding near, Peik Lin takes Rachel out to buy her some new outfits because she obviously can’t repeat wear something. When Rachel and Nick arrive to the first party, they are happily upstaged by Nick’s cousin’s girlfriend Kitty who is an actress and arrives wearing a see-through dress!

Despite the meddling of his family and family friends, when Nick sees Rachel at the wedding, he knows that it is time to propose to her. Unfortunately they are again thwarted by an old flame who interrupts the emotional moment. They head to the reception which is on par with an Olympics opening celebration complete with Cirque du Soleil performers and a ferry to a custom built castle. At the reception, the girl who broke up the proposal and the girl who admitted to the fish incident tell Rachel about how they had a threesome with Nick and he has never forgotten it. It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back for the whole situation for Rachel. She and Nick decide to get away from it all and head to Malaysia.

Nick tells his mother that they are leaving and that he plans to propose to Rachel. Eleanor is flabbergasted and does not support it, but Nick doesn’t care and heads out anyway. Unfortunately, his mother and grandmother beat them there to stop the proposal. Rachel does not come from a proper enough family and Eleanor has the background to prove it. Although Rachel thought that her father had died, Eleanor has tracked down that he is actually in prison in China. Rachel is obviously completely in shock and she has Nick drive her into town where she proceeds to take a taxi back to Peik Lin’s.

Eventually Rachel calls her mother and shouts at her for not telling her the truth. She then slips into a depression not accepting calls from her mother or from Nick. Eventually she does meet with Nick to tell him that things are over. They are just far too different. Nick is undeterred and flies Rachel’s mother to Singapore to mend fences. Rachel discovers that the truth is much deeper than expected. Her mother’s husband who was abusive is now in jail in China, but the man who she believes to be Rachel’s father is someone different who she let go out of her life. Rachel and her mom make up, and for the thoughtfulness of it, Rachel decides to give Nick a second chance. Rachel, Rachel’s mom, Peik Lin, and Nick head off to a hawker center arguing about which one is the best.

Verdict: 4 stars

I mostly covered the plot in my review which really is not the best part of this book. It’s the subtle stereotyping, the constant brand name dropping and the hilarious snobbery all guised in this satirical book. The author does a great job of describing the absurd amount of wealth in a way that does not feel too weighed down, and all in all it was just a fun book to read.

Leave a comment

Filed under 4 stars, Book Review

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

  Summary (Amazon): Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: amazing

So I have been reading this behemoth of a book since the 4th of July. It’s been on my shelf waiting to be read since last summer, but I haven’t had the time to set aside to actually do it. The book recommendation came from a random place. While we were on vacation last summer, we took a sunset ride on a sailboat. Also on this boat ride was a family who we have dubbed “the best family ever”. Because honestly, they seemed so great. The parents worked for the School of Rock, which is actually a real place, not just the Jack Black movie. They had 2 biological college age daughters and one adopted (also college age) daughter, and all were amazingly well-spoken and just very cool. One of the daughters was an avid reader and recommended this book as a must-read.

Maybe her opinion biased me, but I really liked this book, and I thought it was worth the time spent.

Theo Decker lives with his mom; his dad left them and has not made contact. Theo is a smart kid who isn’t applying himself, and he finds himself suspended from school. He and his mother have to go into the school to discuss, and en route, they stop into the Met along the way when it starts to rain. Theo’s mother studied art history at NYU and wants to see a painting that is at the museum, The Goldfinch by Fabritius. It was her favorite as a child, and the tale of how Fabritius died in a fire in Delft with most of his artwork makes it even more rare. While at the museum, Theo finds himself mesmerized by another patron, a pale red haired girl with a man who looks to be her grandfather. When they are approaching the time to go, Theo’s mother tells him to meet her in the gift shop, but she wants to go back and get a look at another painting on display. An explosion occurs in the museum, and when Theo awakes, he has no idea what has happened. He realizes that the grandfather is in the room with him, and is struggling to stay alive. Theo finds some water, gives it to the man, and stays with him until he passes. The man gives Theo his ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell and ring the green bell. In his delirium, he also suggests to Theo that he take The Goldfinch (which has fallen from the wall in the blast) away from here, which Theo does.

Theo is unsure of his mother’s whereabouts, but when he exits the museum, he sees that they are preparing for an additional explosion. The plan is to always meet back at the house so he heads there expecting that she will eventually return. But she doesn’t. Eventually child protective services arrives. They ask him about his father, but he doesn’t know his father’s whereabouts. They allow him to go to stay with his friend Andy’s family until his grandparents or father can be located. Andy’s family is wealthy, but Andy is the nerdy odd duck of the bunch with his siblings Platt who is older and bullies him and the younger popular Kitsie and Toddy. As best as he can due to his traumatic experiences, Theo is happy at the Barbours, however, once he recovers somewhat, he remembers about the old man and his ring. He tracks down Hobart and Blackwell, rings the green bell, and he finds that the old man was Blackwell. Hobart “Hobie” is still there and explains a bit of the history. Hobie and “Welty” (Blackwell) were business partners dealing predominately in antique furniture. Hobie was the craftsman, and Welty was the salesman. Theo immediately likes Hobie, and is even more drawn to the shop when he finds out that the red haired girl from the museum is also there recovering until she heads to Texas with her aunt. In the meantime, Theo and Pippa become good friends.

One fateful day however, his father arrives with his new girlfriend Xandra. Theo is going with them to Las Vegas. Xandra works in a casino, and Theo’s father is a “professional” gambler. In general, Theo hates his life in Las Vegas, the only bright spot being his friendship with Boris, a Ukranian boy in a similar situation (no mother, deadbeat father). With no attentive parents, the two slip into a pattern of drugs, alcohol, and reckless abandon. They aren’t the only ones. Theo’s father is in trouble with gambling debts. Thugs are showing up at the house when Theo is home, and his father even tries to convince Theo to contact his mother’s lawyer for some of his inheritance. (He can’t withdraw it.) Theo’s father gets drunk and kills himself in a car accident. (This section in Las Vegas went on too long for my taste.)

Once Xandra is passed out after the funeral, Boris and Theo steal her money and drugs, and Theo leaves to head back to New York with the painting and Xandra’s dog who she never took care of anyway. When he finally gets back into New York, dirty and exhausted, he sees Mr. Barbour in Central Park. Mr. Barbour is off of his medication and scares Theo to the point that he has no interest in returning there or even with getting in touch with Andy. He heads to Hobie’s and asks if he can stay. Hobie agrees. Pippa is there again, on break from her school for broken girls, and they reconnect. Eventually Xandra calls and tells Theo that he’s just like his father. However, CPS allows Theo to stay with Hobie while he attends an early college program that he tested into.

The book then skips ahead eight years. We learn that Theo never did that well in school, and eventually returned to help Hobie at the store, taking the place of Welty when the past due notices begin to come in. Theo is wrought with problems. He still has The Goldfinch which stresses him constantly although it’s now in a storage unit. He is addicted to drugs, and he has also taken to selling counterfeit furniture to get the business into the black. He bumps into Platt on the street and becomes reconnected with the Barbours. However, Andy and Mr. Barbour died in a boating accident a few months prior. Theo agrees to dine with the rest of the family at their place since Mrs. Barbour no longer leaves to reconnect, and soon a relationship develops between Theo and Kitsey, although for both, it’s more a matter of appearance. Theo still loves Pippa (who has a boyfriend she lives with in London), and Kitsey is emotionally detached.

One of the people who Theo sold phony merchandise to has figured it out, and he confronts Theo. Theo returns his money plus some, hoping to buy it back and have it settled. However, Lucius Reeve has other ideas. He doesn’t cash the check or return the furniture, and one day confronts Theo with a thought. Lucius believes that Theo stole The Goldfinch from the museum since he was in that room when it was bombed, and Lucius is not above blackmailing Theo and Hobie for it. Obviously Theo is panicking since he still has The Goldfinch in a paid-in-cash storage unit. However, he can’t go check on it without being tracked. Theo’s anxiety is getting the best of him between the fraudulent furniture sales, Lucius Reeve and The Goldfinch and his upcoming wedding to Kitsey with all the parties and schmoozing that accompany it. He takes some time away from her to go see a movie, but ends up wandering around the city with a plan to find drugs. What he does find…is Boris!

It’s not clear what Boris has been up to or what his job actually entails, but it’s presumed to be a bit shady. (No one expected any differently.) In a surprise twist however, Boris reveals that many years ago when they lived in Las Vegas, Theo was blasted and showed Boris the painting. And Boris as a teenage joke, stole it. He meant to give it back, but Theo left in such a hurry, he wasn’t able to. Eventually Boris sells it, and he tells Theo that he will get it back. The pair go visit an associate of Boris’s who doesn’t really know what happened to it, however, through the behavior of the associate’s girlfriend during the meeting, Boris pieces together that her brother is the one who has it.

Boris makes an appearance at the end of Theo’s engagement party (where an associate of Mr. Reeves’ has been threatening him) and tells Theo to pack because they have a lead. Theo and Boris head to Amsterdam through separate routes and reconvene upon arrival. Theo is the American buyer, and they go to the meeting place where there are only 2 people waiting for them. They overtake the men, take the painting, and think they have made a clean getaway. However, a young boy in the restaurant saw what happened and gets the others. Boris and Theo are stopped on the way back to the hotel and a shoot out occurs. Boris is injured in the attack, but the big shock is that Theo shoots and kills one of the men. Boris keeps his cool in the situation. He sends Theo back to the hotel to await his call, and presumably he goes to take care of his arm.

Theo continues to wait for Boris’s call growing more impatient by the minute. His passport is still in the car that they drove to the rendezvous. After trying to get a new passport through the embassy (and failing), he tries to sneak to Paris via train (also failing). Then hee begins to concoct a plan. He writes letters to all the important people in his life–Hobie, Pippa, Kitsey, and Mrs. Barbour, and then does a bunch of drugs. However, the plan is not to commit suicide. The plan is go have a good night and then turn himself in. But before he gets the opportunity, Boris reappears with a bunch of money that he is giving to Theo. Boris indirectly called in an anonymous tip that led to locating the painting and many other pieces of stolen artwork.

Theo returns to the USA and confesses the entire story to Hobie. With his new windfall and essentially new life, Theo sets off to refund the money for all the counterfeit furniture that he sold over the years. He’s still engaged to Kitsey but still a part of him is hoping that something happens with Pippa. The book ends philosophically. One bad decision (stealing the painting) eventually led to a good outcome (recovering it and many other paintings). What does that mean about a person’s innate behavior? What is the meaning of the painting of The Goldfinch itself. A chained bird who looks content in its surroundings.

Verdict: 4.5 stars

I thought this was easily one of the best books I’ve read. The author seems so knowledgeable about everything she wrote about–from art to furniture to drugs. It made this fictional story seem like a real auto-biography. Definitely worth the time commitment.

Leave a comment

Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Review