You’ll probably read Lincoln in the Bardo because everyone is talking about it and because George Saunders is some kind of savant of literary genius who writes sentences that are so particular in their detail and yet so vast in their evocation of feeling that while reading you sort of stumble between the narrative itself and the awareness that you are reading the work of a master of language-to-mean. Not unlike my own opening run-on-sentence, right? Right. Continue reading
Book two of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, The Story of a New Name is as captivating as the first. Following Elena and Lila as they enter their twenties this second installment continues to explore the contours of their friendship, Elena’s growing sense of self and the impact of politics, class and gender on choice.
Book one ends with Lila’s marriage to Steffan and the assumption by Elena of Lila’ triumph in ‘achieving’ this life milestone first. As book two unfolds we see Elena questioning this assumption and coming to realize that once the thrill of excitement has dissipated, Lila has made the wrong decision. More jealousy and comparison ensues. Trips to the beach. Scandal. Writing and studying.
The scenes of Elena recognizes her intellectual limitations (or at least fixating on them) were most resonant for me. Considering the distance between being a ‘hard worker’ and ‘gifted,’ Elena realizes she won’t be a professor, she will instead have to be a teacher.
Book two ends again on a cliff hanger. 3/4 in I decided I didn’t care enough to read book three. I’ve just put it on the list at the library. So… cliff-hanger or not I’m seemingly invested enough in what happens to the friendship to read on. You detect reluctance? It’s there. Just not sure why. Anyone else finding this with this series? You both can’t stop reading and are also pretty ambivalent about the story while you’re reading it?
It’s been hard to write about Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. Hard to find words for how affecting I found the novel, how much I appreciated it. I really, really, emphatically, as loud as I’ve ever claimed it, think this is a brilliant novel. It’s not worth it to have best lists, I get it. But if I was someone who kept best lists (okay, I do) this one would be near the top. I can’t think of a book in recent (or any?) memory that has lived so fully in my mind, has occupied such a significant place in my thinking while – and after – I was reading it. Note I didn’t say “enjoyed” – it’s a hard story to live within, and you really will live within it (and for days and weeks after you finish it – it’s still following me around). It’s a long book, but you won’t notice the length, except maybe the anxiety of realizing you only have half of it left, the worry that eventually the last page will come. It’s a book that wants you to feel deeply and succeeds through masterful – truly – narration and character development in making you feel so. much. Continue reading
For years I read John Steinbeck’s East of Eden every spring. I read it in the spring because its setting was the lush Salinas valley (okay – “Eden”); I loved it because it held the idea that we can choose the direction of our life. (I also probably loved it because it was one of the first books I read during the end of highschool/undergrad that I recognized – on my own! – the way the book was artfully (though not subtly in this case) making meaning: all of the A names are good! The C names evil!). I wanted to believe then (just as I do now) that we humans can make choices (within the constraints of our circumstances…).
Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies (as the title suggests)also explores this idea of the limits of choice. The novel follows the marriage of Lotto (short for Lancelot – as if we needed the reminder that the name of characters signifies something about their thematic role) and Mathilde as they navigate a life of literal and figurative theatre: he is a playwright, they both perform for the world and one another. Attempting to be on the stage of life what they think will earn them the most love (and applause), eschewing honesty for its risk: loss. The novel did not succeed (for this reader) in bringing anything new to the idea of a fated life or one full of intention. It plays around with the ways deception (both the explicit lie and the untold truth) frustrates and enables choice with some interest, but for the most part circles familiar territory.
In its form it recalls Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train in a sort of repressed hysteria of women-can’t-be-trusted and the self-satisfied triumph of revealing as much in a formal break in narrative voice midway through the text. The first half of the novel gives us a third person limited on Lotto: his love for Mathilde, his tortured relationship with his mother and family inheritance, his need for approval and adoration. The second half brings us something like a Gone Girl explosion. Mathilde is not what she seems! Women are mostly temptress, seductress whores unless they are beacons of goodness (*cough* another East of Eden parallel…). Under the calm exterior of every woman is a roiling example of evil incarnate and barely controlled fury. Throughout both section the narrator/authorial voice interrupts in parentheses to let us know what is really going on – the playwright inserting the intended reading. It is, at moments, a compelling device, however it is unevenly deployed (almost as though it’s been forgotten at some points and at others with little effect except to be novel). I suppose that’s my complaint about the form of the novel: it reads like a overly workshopped story, intent on being taken seriously, a little too satisfied with the creativity of its changing narrative voices.
Unlike Gone Girl there’s merit in this novel. There are interesting ideas about choice and deception, and moments of great writing and formal play. The caveat is that you have to muck about with a bunch of obvious Symbols and handwringing Theme for those moments. A good one to take on a plane or to the beach in that it reads quickly and requires very little of the reader. Plus there’s a bazillion sex scenes. Because you know, women. They’re so sexy. And furious.