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!).
The overwhelming word that comes to mind with Emma Donoghue’s Akin is ‘lukewarm,’ which as someone who tries to write down how I feel about the books I’ve read feels unsatisfying. Declare a position! But really, I could neither urge you to read or not read this one. It’s fine. If your book club picks it? Fine. If someone gifts it to you because it was on the bestseller table at the book store? Fine. If you pass over it at the used bookstore because there are seven copies and you’d rather take home [insert anything else] [except Girl on the Train] Fine.
I read it out of curiosity. I’d enjoyed Room and Akin was getting lots of hype and I’m nothing if not easily persuaded by best-of lists and recommendations. And Akin does have reasons for recommendations: (1) it’s a tight plot – taking place in a little over ten days, it follows octogenarian Noah as he must unexpectedly take over the care for his grand-nephew, Michael, and still journey to his birthplace of Nice to discover the truth about his mother (Noah does, I mean). The focused plot gives the novel a short story-esque feel, and a relative certainty early on for the reader on how things between Michael and Noah are going to turn out. (Cue every plot ever about a troubled teenager and an equally-troubled-but-pretending-to-have-it-all-sorted adult like every teacher-disturbed class movie ever). (2) Michael is a well done character, and the questions he asks and his reactions feel sensible and in line with what his character would say or do.
And then there’s the reasons you could pass this one by: (1) The aforementioned obviousness of the outcome of the Noah-Michael dynamic and the somewhat alarming way in which having children is roughly inserted towards the end of the novel as a prime Purpose for living – an insult to folks who don’t have kids and an unreasonable burden to place on children (2) The entire plot line of investigating the backstory of Noah’s mother reads as both impossibly far-fetched and like a poorly grafted limb onto the main body of the story. Every time the two of them set out to investigate another piece of her backstory I was surprised again to find that the novel seemed to think Noah’s mother and Nazi history was the point of the book or the thematic center. Not so, novel. Figure out what you’re about and be about that. (Curious minds want to know? Themes of judgement, justice and redemption).
Taken together I remain… lukewarm. Convince me otherwise? Or don’t. With this one I really don’t care.