Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Janelle Brown, PRETTY THINGS

I don't always love thrillers, but this one caught my interest and kept me reading for hours one day ... neglecting chores and refusing to cook dinner. It's a twined tale, told in two alternating voices, of Nina, the daughter of a grifter mom and Vanessa, born into a life of enormous privilege. Their lives intersect when they are both teens, and both come away from those years with a sense of having been terribly wronged by the other person's family. Years later, their lives intersect again.

What sets this book apart from some thrillers is the elegant, economical writing and the acute attention to the emotional life of the characters. These women are messy, ambivalent, troubled, and disillusioned, but they are also capable of reflection and growth. The themes running through are very current--the addictive quality of social media, the problems our young adults face when they get out of college with heaps of debt, and our desire for connecting meaningfully with new people when an identity is something that can be forged on the web. I think this book would please readers who loved THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, but it would also satisfy readers who liked LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE and the Broadway musical WICKED. It is a tale of family dysfunction but also a story about women learning to be strong in the broken places.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020


Insightful, compassionate, and engagingly written, this is a memoir of a woman who is both in therapy for herself and providing therapy to her patients in Los Angeles. For me, the book recalled the years I spent in therapy in New York, when I was in graduate school in my early thirties, with so much to learn about my own misbegotten assumptions and poor communication and coping skills. Much of this material felt familiar--the role of the therapist, the process of corrective experiences that help us to question our assumptions, discovering the space after an "event" and before a "response" in which choices are made, and identifying the ways we sublimate, repress and misdirect our feelings. But despite having seen much of this up close for myself, I enjoyed spending two days (it's a quick read, with short, economically written chapters) in this woman's mind.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Hilary Mantel, WOLF HALL

This is a bold and ambitious novel that took me 3 tries to read--but I'm glad I tried that third time. I've seen other reviews that mention how difficult it is to read. Part of the difficulty, I think, is that the book is written in the third person ("he") but focalized almost exclusively through Cromwell (as in, the camera is on his shoulder and the narrative voice is like Cromwell's speaking voice--wry and shrewdly observant, laced with zeugma and understatement). At times this creates some peculiar grammar. For example, Mantel uses the pronoun "he" to refer to both Cromwell and King Henry, or both Cromwell and Thomas More in the same sentence. But once I became used to having to reread paragraphs to figure out which "he" was saying or doing what, I was drawn wholly into the story. Mantel's world building is as complete and elaborate as (dare I say) Rowling's for Harry Potter--and Mantel's breadth of knowledge is awe-inspiring. Yet because Cromwell's subjectivity is so complete, and the events are always filtered through his sensibilities, I never felt I was being served a history lesson. If you've watched THE TUDORS, you'll find all the echoes of vengeance and desire and willfulness and conniving. I'll read the next.