Louise Penny and I have been on something of a Pandemic Journey. At first I was reading her mysteries because they were the only books that could sustain my focus (plot!) and give me some hope (Armand is so kind!) (even his eyes are kind!) and then I was reading them with guilt because shouldn’t I be done *needing* mysteries after month three of quarantine? And now I’m just in a place of delight. Like it’s delightful to me how much I enjoy the books, and the books are delightful in their coziness (sure with threats on life and murder and drama).
And this latest instalment in the Gamache series, All the Devils Are Here proves even more enjoyable for the departure from Quebec and the endless descriptions of the kindness of the villagers in Three Pines. Set in Paris, we’re offered something fresh in the setting, and something fresh in the plot through the involvement of the Gamache children. It’s an altogether delightful departure.
That said, the consistent inclusion of descriptions of rich and delicious food was appreciated.
If you’re still in search of a summer read (okay, I may be in denial about how much of the summer is left) you could do much worse than Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel. With a jumpy chronology and shifting narrative points of view, the novel follows the rise and fall of a Bernie Madoffesque character and his ‘wife.’ It has the appeal of a suspense novel, but with the depth of well-crafted literary fiction. Plus descriptions of fancy things, which let’s not kid ourselves, we all love.
I was especially taken with the thematic questions at the heart of the novel: the possibility of knowing something and not knowing it at the same time [which the form of the novel brilliantly demonstrates – the reader is introduced very early to the knowledge that Jonathan (our Madoff character) will go to prison, and yet we spend much of the novel knowing this, and doubting it as we read (and hope?) that he and Vincent will avoid punishment]. Our characters struggle with what immorality (and crimes) they are willing to stomach from those around them or themselves, and more importantly, what they are able to put out of mind and ignore for their own material comfort. While the novel doesn’t make the explicit connection to our current moment the reader can’t help but contemplate what we know is happening and what we allow ourselves to not know (for any host of issues from climate change to racial injustice to animal suffering to the utility of a Peloton bike to etc). Rather than casting these characters as evil or unlikeable for this self-delusion, the novel instead points to how we all find ourselves in situations, often lifetimes (of jobs, or marriages, or identities) where we have made compromises, or slid down slippery slopes, and rather than confront where we are, or what we have become, or who we are with, we insist on not knowing what we also know. It’s a question I’ve not read as explicitly or carefully in any novel, and one that, after it surfaces, seems entirely obvious for exploration. Like so much else hiding just below the surface waiting for consideration.
So yes. If the well-paced plot, fully developed characters, and scenes of fancy things weren’t enough to endear you to this book, let the weighty (yet somehow not ponderous) theme bring you to it.
Nothing fancy or personal here, folks, just a ringing endorsement for Sarah Leipciger’s Coming Up for Air, a fantastic book about… drowning? But really – the writing here is extraordinarily good, so good the interwoven plots don’t need much to hold together – though they do. Like chapter 24 that details Pieter in his fishing boat and a *spoiler spoiler* Event is some of the best writing I’ve encountered in years. Hair raising.
I may have been predisposed to like this one because it’s historical fiction and Canadian, but given my recent spate of not being able to read anything serious or well-written, I think this one had its fair share of odds to overcome. Threading three plot lines – that of the 19th century woman who kills herself by drowning in the opening chapter, a mid-century man who moulds plastics and a contemporary woman living with cystic fibrosis and writing – the reader sets out wondering if and how these plot lines come together. And while they do eventually, sort of, connect in terms of plot, it is their thematic and symbolic notes that connect them most meaningfully: water, breath, filial and affilial love.
As a creature of the water myself I was hypnotized by the descriptions of swimming and submersion. As the three characters navigate water-filled worlds they raise questions about the thinness of the line between life and death, and the hubris of humans in swimming this line.
So now that libraries are fully reopening you have no excuse. Get out Coming Up for Air and I promise you won’t be disappointed.*
*Promises are not valid if you have bad taste.
I finished reading Lynn Coady’s Watching You Without Me a day before Ontario shut down the schools and all the grocery stores sold out of flour and pasta sauce. So to say that my memory of its plot and import is foggy is… accurate. Because how could I be expected to remember anything without pasta sauce. Really.
But I am not going to forget to tell you that I did read Lynn Coady and that Watching You Without Me was only sort of okay. It follows a middle aged woman in small town east coast Canada (I assume? I actually can’t recall if the setting is named) as she returns to her childhood home following her mother’s death to spend a few weeks with her sister before moving her sister into an assisted living facility. The sister, Kelly, has some kind of – again unnamed or forgotten – cognitive disability and our protagonist arrives imagining, as she always has, that Kelly will move in to this facility. Enter the super creepy man, named…. maybe Tyler? something with a T? anyway, what unfolds is the gradual revelation of Tyler as a Super Creep/stalker/abuser and we the reader are taken along for the ride that is meant, I think, to explain how someone could find themselves wrapped up with such a predator without ever intending to be.
I persisted in reading it because it was the book I had available at the time and because reading inertia. It wasn’t great. Certainly not something that in a pandemic I’d suggest you go buy because your library is closed. Our protagonist makes weird choices (by that I mean they don’t feel consistent with her character), the plot line with Tyler seems to drag, the fraught relationship with the dead mother that is meant to be the emotional heart of the novel is never fleshed out well enough to be anything other than the Reference Point for Pain in the past, rather than something the reader identifies with, and the secondary characters all similarly lack complete design so read as either flat or inconsistent.
The good news is that I have started reading again, and am finding a new kind of balance in this [insert overused adjective about unprecedented, challenging, strange new normal] world and so expect I will be a more reliable correspondent in the coming weeks. And because I know all of you live online now, you could do worse than to send me a message with a suggestion for what catastrophe read I should order (or try to trade for!).