Recommended Reading: Cristina Henríquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans

photo (95)As The Book of Unknown Americans* opens,  Alma and Arturo Rivera arrive in Delaware with their daughter, Maribel. The journey was long and uncomfortable, and already they miss their life in Mexico, but what they hope for eclipses all the uncertainty and fear they face: they just want their daughter, injured in an accident, to get well.

They’ve waited for months for Arturo to find work — though in Mexico he worked as a skilled builder, here he works long days in darkness at a mushroom-growing facility — so that Maribel can attend a school that might help her manage the memory loss and personality fluctuations that resulted from her accident.

Some of the first neighbors to welcome them to their new apartment complex are the Toros, a family who fled political upheaval in Panama years before. Mayor is about Maribel’s age; he’s shy, bullied at school, and woefully unskilled at soccer compared to his older brother. He feels caught between two worlds: “I felt more American than anything, but even that was up for debate according to the kids at school [. . . ] The truth was that I didn’t know which I was. I wasn’t allowed to claim the thing I felt and I didn’t feel the thing I was supposed to claim” (78). Mayor falls immediately for Maribel’s beauty, but as the weeks go on they develop a deep friendship.

While Maribel is at school and Arturo is at work, Alma navigates life in a strange country, helped along by Mayor’s mother Celia. After a run-in with a menacing teenager soon after their arrival, Alma is extremely protective of Maribel.  Her protectiveness and Mayor’s growing affection for Maribel soon lead to friction between the two families, and, eventually, tragic consequences.

The Book of Unknown Americans is about love: not just romantic love, but the love of parents for their children. It’s not a Romeo and Juliet story, and I appreciated the depth of the narrative that’s due to Alma and Mayor’s alternating narration.

The novel is also an evocative rendering of the multiplicity of immigrant experiences. In deftly composed vignettes, Ms. Henríquez introduces us to many of the residents of the Toros’ and Riveras’ apartment complex, men and women from all over Latin America, men and women with sad and funny and terrible stories. These small sections, told in characters’ own voices, feature some of the best writing in the novel; I wanted to know more about these characters. The brevity of these sections is deliberate, of course; even these sketches are more than we usually read about the “unknown Americans” of the novel’s title. As Micho Alvarez puts it,

When I walk down the street, I don’t want people to look at me and see a criminal or someone that they can spit on or beat up. I want them to see a guy who has just as much right to be here as they do, or a guy who works hard, or a guy who loves his family, or a guy who’s just trying to do the right things. [. . . ] We’re the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they’ve been told they’re supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realizes that we’re not that bad, maybe even that we’re a lot like them. And who would they hate then? (237)

The Book of Unknown Americans is a nuanced, deeply affecting examination of what it means to live in America, and what it means to be American. Highly recommended reading.

Tomorrow: An interview with Cristina Henríquez, author of The Book of Unknown Americans

* I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review



Recommended Reading: What Is Visible, by Kimberly Elkins

photo (92)What Is Visible*, Kimberly Elkins’s debut novel, begins with a meeting. Helen Keller, just eight years old, is introduced to the woman whose fame was legendary in the nineteenth century, a woman whose incredible story will be eclipsed by Helen Keller, fifty years her junior. The woman’s name is Laura Bridgman, and she’s the subject of What Is Visible, a fascinating novel.

At the age of two, Laura Bridgman lost not only her sight and hearing, but also her senses of taste and smell to scarlet fever. Brought to the Perkins Institute in Boston, she becomes a star pupil, learning to read and write, communicating through hand spelling. Crowds came to see her, and dignitaries requested private meetings; Charles Dickens wrote a chapter about her in American Notes. At one point, it’s said, she and Queen Victoria were the most famous women in the world.

What Is Visible traces the story of Laura’s life, interspersing her narration with that of the people closest to her; they fill in the gaps with parts of the story Laura could not know. The novel includes a striking number of nineteenth-century celebrity cameos, from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to John Brown to Dickens and (in absentia) Emily Dickinson.

What’s more remarkable, however, is Ms. Elkins’s skill in bringing Laura’s world — a world dominated by the sense of touch — to brilliant life. In her rendering, Laura is immensely perceptive and inquisitive; she could tell if someone enters a room by the change in the air currents, and loves the textures of fabrics especially. She’s also very sensitive, and devoted to her teachers, in particular Sarah Wight and Dr. Samuel Howe, the head of the Perkins Institute (then in South Boston, now in Watertown). Until his marriage, he and Laura act more like father and daughter than teacher and pupil; when he meets the lovely Julia Ward, however, everything changes.

The Howes’ marriage is the first great disruption of Laura’s life that we read about in the novel, though others follow. Julia Ward Howe — yes, the poet behind “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” — is the novel’s second fixation. Prone to depression, sometimes repulsed by her husband’s pupils, chafing under her husband’s edict that she cease to write and publish, and very uncomfortable with Laura’s attentions, Julia is often unsympathetic, but endlessly interesting. Laura and Julia’s dynamic relationship is expertly rendered here.

The brilliance of What Is Visible lies in the way it explore’s Laura’s inner world, the vast richness of her emotions, opinions, and perceptions — and the way it explores the outside world’s fascination with her, a fascination that reveals a determination to view her as a social experiment. Laura’s education, her religion, even her body are subjects of controversy and concern. Dr. Howe, who helped her to acquire language, is also the person who denies her glass eyes, a Bible, a lock on her door, all in the name of her best interests, her moral upbringing. Laura’s fits of temper are completely understandable given the lack of control she’s awarded over her own life; her aching desire to be loved, to be seen, is heart-wrenching.

It’s astounding that such a witty, intelligent, accomplished figure has virtually disappeared from our collective memory. Here’s hoping What Is Visible will bring Laura Bridgman back to the spotlight she deserves.

Wednesday: An interview with Kimberly Elkins, author of What Is Visible

*I received a review copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.


Readers interested in nonfiction accounts of Laura Bridgman’s life have two recent (historically speaking) biographies to choose from: The Imprisoned Guest, by Elisabeth Gitter, and The Education of Laura Bridgman, by Ernest Freeberg.

What Is Visible is published by Twelve, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, which, if you haven’t heard, is having a, shall we say, disagreement with Amazon at the moment. If you’re considering buying What Is Visible, I highly recommend shopping your local independent bookstore.

Recommended Reading: I’ll Be Right There, by Kyung-sook Shin

photo (88)I’ll Be Right There* is a gem of a novel, a quiet, masterful rendering of the emotional life of a young woman looking back on the formative years of her early twenties. Ms. Shin is one of South Korea’s most popular writers, and I’ll Be Right There is her second book translated into English (the first was the bestseller Please Look After Mom); Sora Kim-Russel’s deft translation flows smoothly and carefully through its pages.

Jung Yoon recalls the period that began with the illness and death of her mother, when Yoon attempts to navigate life on her own, university courses, friendships new and old, first love, and escalating political turmoil. Though the novel is loosely set in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Ms. Shin makes clear in her author’s note that she deliberately did not assign specific dates to the work:

[. . . ] I believe that what happens to the characters in I’ll Be Right There is in no way limited to South Korea. Everything that happens in this novel could happen in any country and in any generation. I believe that no matter how rough the world becomes, there will always be teachers and students learning from each other, and even when savage and violent powers obstruct our freedoms, there will always be earnest and heartfelt first loves and friendships being born. While writing, I was focused on and absorbed in giving expression to those moments. I believe those are the moments that define our lives. We may be the protagonists of tragedy, but we are also the heroes of our most beautiful and thrilling experiences. (324)

I loved Yoon’s thoughtful, melancholy voice from the beginning of the novel, and her three friends — Miru, lost without her absent sister; Myungsah, wavering between protest and study, and Yoon’s first love; and Dahn, Yoon’s childhood friend who abandons art for the army — are beautifully delineated through Yoon’s memories, as well as letters and diary entries.

A show-stopping passage in which Yoon’s favorite professor tells a version of the St. Christopher tale, about fifty pages into the novel, makes I’ll Be Right There a must-read; it resonates through the rest of the novel, to the very end. Like the professor’s story, I’ll Be Right There is about how we manage adversity and grief in all its forms. Delicately conveyed and beautifully human, it’s highly recommended reading.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: Michelle Huneven’s Off Course

photo (68)Cressida Hartley, a graduate student in economics and a casual artist, has retreated to her parents’ A-frame in California’s Sierras to finish her dissertation, a venture that she hopes will take a few months. Instead, it’s years before she comes down off the mountain, years in which she veers both slightly and wildly off course from the life she had planned.

Michelle Huneven’s fourth novel, Off Course* is a delicate character study, one that is deeply rooted in setting. Like her Shakespearean namesake, Cress is at times difficult to like, but always believable, always human — flawed and interesting. Her dissertation languishes while Cress is willingly seduced by the jolly (and non-monogamous) owner of the local lodge, a gathering place for the mountain’s residents and visitors. This affair, quick to to start and quick to finish, would have necessitated only a minor course correction on Cress’s part — but then she meets an intriguing — and married — carpenter.

This is the sort of affair that serves as the backstory or the amusing antics of the best friend/sidekick in romantic comedies, but Ms. Huneven spins the relationship into a masterpiece of characterization. What seems incomprehensible — why an intelligent, feminist, career-oriented woman would spend years of her life on a man who’s often emotionally unavailable and always married — is made comprehensible by the way the novel tracks Cress’s decisions and delays, the disturbances in her understanding of herself. Though she’s an economist, Cress neglects the cost-benefit analysis that could save her grief; and yet, how does one put a price on love?

What I loved most about this novel was Ms. Huneven’s attentiveness to the setting. The land, the sky, the weather, the animals of the Sierras — all seem to seduce Cressida just as much as the men who live on the mountain. If she were a professional artist, she thinks, she would have wanted to work in landscapes. The double edge of the landscape’s isolation and consolation slices through Off Course, exposing not only the tradeoffs Cress makes, but our own concessions to love.

Tomorrow: An Interview with Michelle Huneven, Author of Off Course

*My thanks to the publisher for sending me an advance copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

An Interview with Lindsay Hill, Author of Sea of Hooks

Yesterday I reviewed Sea of Hooks, Lindsay Hill’s first novel, which was published in 2013 by McPherson & Company. Mr. Hill graciously agreed to be interviewed via email.

Lindsay Hill Photo by Adrian L. Smith

Lindsay Hill
Photo by Adrian L. Smith

How and why did you begin to write Sea of Hooks?

LH: The book was begun on a trip to Bhutan in 1994.  I was traveling with the poet and anthropologist, Nathaniel Tarn, and carrying a notebook.  My intention had been to make a limited written record of the trip and to record any thoughts or lines (for possible poems) that came to mind.  During the course of our travels, we learned of the Terma Tradition within the Nyingma school of Buddhism.  This tradition concerns the scattering of Terma (spiritual treasures) in earth, water, air and mind, for future discovery, in proper sequence, by treasure–finders called Terton.  I was spellbound by the beauty of this tradition and by the idea that such treasures lay hidden among us, waiting to be discovered.  As we traveled through the stunning Himalayan landscape, I started to write the outlines of a story. From the beginning, the themes were going to include the emergence of compassion and the spiritual transformation of a traveler.  Even so, having written only poetry, I had little idea of how to proceed.

Did you approach writing Sea of Hooks, your first novel, differently from the way you approach writing poetry?

LH: The trip to Bhutan, completely inadvertently, began a new phase in my life as a writer.  I began to carry, and fill, small notebooks with thoughts as they occurred to me.  This was very different from sitting down to write, or intending to compose, a finished poem.  I found that I had embarked on the composition of a continuous open text.   Very soon, I began titling the individual entries and letting the threads find their way.  Perhaps because I am severely dyslexic, I subvocalize everything I read.  Also, I am only able to read very slowly.  This combination of conditions led me, very early on, to a passion for reading poetry.  Every concussive syllable, every shifting rhythm, every lyric leap, enthralled me.  At Bard, where I was lucky enough to go to school, I started with Middle English (The Pearl Poet and Chaucer), and finally arrived at the 20th century in my senior year.  In essence, I apprenticed my ear to the arc of great poets in English, and a bit of that rich tradition couldn’t help but rub off!  So, in writing anything, I find myself attentive to sound and rhythm.  Also, I like the difficulty and the challenging associative leaps that often occupy the best poems.  Combine these preferences with my short attention span, and you end up with a novel of titled fragments that carry, at least to some degree, the stylistic characteristics of poems.  The difference lay in the particular demands that the novel, as an artistic form, places on any writer.  The necessities of finding and sustaining “voice” over an extended text; the demands of constructing a compelling plot; the challenges of developing plausible characters; all of these were extremely daunting to me, and any success that I had took hundreds upon hundreds of pages of missteps.  Ultimately, what I hope I was able to accomplish with Sea of Hooks, is a genre–spanning work that employs poetic methods, and architectures, to strengthen narrative structures.  Certainly, this is nothing new or unique, but for me, it was an entirely marvelous adventure of learning how a story could become the wetting stone of lyric language.

I understand that you composed Sea of Hooks over a period of more than twenty years. When you began the work, did you think or know that so much time would pass before it would be finished?

LH: I had no idea.  Originally, I intended to write a simple story.  Eventually, I had to be willing to be completely, even relentlessly, patient as complexity intervened.  Especially in the last eight years of its composition, I was working every day on the novel.  It was a completely joyful enterprise, and I was honestly unconcerned with when it would wrap itself up.  Many times, I truly doubted that it would ever “come together.”  By the time I started editing, I had over 5,000 titled sections from which to select and with which to assemble a coherent book.  The editing took three years and, in the final year, I did no other work.  Basically, four out of every five “sections” were thrown out.  Clearly, I’m not a very efficient novelist!

One thread in the narrative finds Christopher exploring Bhutan and Buddhism. How did you come to this choice?

As mentioned above, this thread originated with my trip to The Himalayas and with my learning about the Terma Tradition.  Christopher, the book’s protagonist, is following an inquiry into how a shattered world can be reassembled.  Everything is at stake for him in this.  Philosophically, Buddhism has much to say about the topics that preoccupy his thinking: the nature of the construction of the self, the puzzle of desire and suffering, the meaning of emptiness and liberation.  One of the book’s central images, that of a mother running armless beside a river where her child is drowning, came from Patrul Rinpoche’s The Words of My Perfect Teacher, and is among the most powerful I’ve ever encountered.  In Rinpoche’s teachings, this image represents a paradigm of compassion: not simply as empathy, but as the practice of staying steadily with suffering that cannot be fixed.  Through the lens of Christopher’s experience, this understanding is key.  So, Buddhism had an extremely generative affect on my thinking and writing and, above all, on my ability to perceive, from the heart, the possibilities that suffering offered for transformation in Christopher’s life.  Of course, Sea of Hooks is a story, and in no way presumes to be a scholarly explication of Buddhism or to reveal the depths of its great traditions.

Which writers do you read while writing? Do your reading choices change depending on the writing project at hand?

LH: I still, primarily, read poetry.  While writing Sea of Hooks,  I spent time with a wide range of work, from Donne’s Satires ( streams are, power is...) to Gerard Manley Hopkins (…like shining from shook foil…), to the works of contemporaries like Tarn (The Beautiful Contradictions, Ins and Outs of the Forest Rivers), and Palmer (Six Hermetic Songs, Thread), and many younger poets as well.  Also, I read a good deal of philosophy, from the Pre–Socratics to Wittgenstein.  Mostly, I like to read work that poses interesting questions and that approaches them in innovative ways.  I like to read work that takes risks.  This doesn’t really change depending on what I’m writing but I do try to avoid work that may offer “solutions,” to questions I’m wrestling with in my own writing.  I like to stay with difficulties until they reveal their own underpinnings; their own “ways out.

What kinds of writing projects are you planning next?

LH: I strongly believe that a writing project deserves to have authentic urgency behind it: something at risk for the writer in writing it, and for the reader in reading it.  At least for me, that urgency, that necessity, isn’t something that can be “put” into a work.  It’s not an “ingredient.”  It’s the ground from which the work grows, and around which it organizes itself, as it takes shape, and strives to inhabit a living space.  Sometimes you just have to wait for that urgency to arrive.  In the meantime, my intention, and practice, is to maintain a constant relationship with writing.  This means that I continue to keep a small notebook in my back pocket and write as often as something of potential interest occurs to me.  I do this without any expectation that my jottings will be “good,” or used later in any way.  It’s just a practice to keep the dialogue open with my work.  The result has been that I have a joyful and relaxed approach to writing.  All that aside, I have, with some trepidation, started a new novel.  I envision a simple story…

My thanks again to Mr. Hill for sharing his time and generous answers. 

Recommended Reading: Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

Yes, it’s another installment in Books Carolyn Is Utterly Embarrassed Not to Have Read by Now.

Image courtesy of Manostphoto/

Image courtesy of Manostphoto/

As a voracious reader and lover of sci-fi, it’s pretty amazing that Fahrenheit 451 has missed my to-read pile for so long. Maybe it’s because the contours of the story are so familiar; I felt going in as if I already knew the plot.

Something that startled me was the sheer number of technological advances that Bradbury saw coming in 1953 (because of his long career, I’d always assumed that Fahrenheit was a late 60s/ early 70s book — quite wrongly): wall-sized TV screens, in-ear headphones, drones. I wonder if Suzanne Collins was thinking of the Mechanical Hound when she created some of the monsters in The Hunger Games trilogy.

I’ll skip the plot summary, since you’ve probably got the gist of it, and instead highlight my favorite section: Montag’s meeting with Grayson and the other people of the book, who remind themselves, “we’re nothing more than dust jackets for books, of no significance otherwise.” Grayson goes on to tell Montag how great works of literature are preserved: “Why, there’s one town in Maryland, only twenty-seven people, no bomb’ll ever touch that town, is the complete essays of a man named Bertrand Russell” (179; the grammar’s a little off, but I can’t tell if that’s Grayson’s overexcitement or a faulty edition at work). I found the work of memory, the instinct to preserve ideas and language, deeply moving.

I wonder, though, if regarding oneself as merely a dust jacket for a book is entirely admirable. Certainly there’s a sense embedded in this idea of taking a larger, longer perspective (I’m reminded of Carl Sagan and the blue dot, or Rick’s speech at the end of Casablanca), a way of realizing our individual insignificance over the span of time. On the other hand, one person with a great deal of insight, or fortitude, or kindness, can change the world for the better. But I suppose you do need the world.

Recommended Reading: The Red Queen, by Margaret Drabble

Since I’ve read two books by A.S. Byatt so far this year, I thought it would be only fair to give one of her sister’s novels a try. Sister, you say? You haven’t heard of another novelist with the last name of Byatt?

The Red Queen

Well, that’s because A.S. Byatt’s non-pen name is Dame Antonia Duffy (she was born Antonia Susan Drabble), and her sister’s name is Margaret Drabble.

Both writers have been laureled and lauded many times over, but they do not see each other often and do not read each other’s novels, the result, apparently, of their rivalry as writers and their disagreement over the portrayal of their mother and the use of the family tea-set in a novel.  It’s a real shame, not only because their novels are so good, but because in all the interviews I’ve read, both women seem like lovely people.

Enough about that. Let’s talk about the book.

The back jacket of The Red Queen claims that it’s “a rich and playful novel about love, about personal and public history, and what it means to be remembered.” Readers may recall my feelings about unattributed jacket copy, and I do think that this is better than most, with one slight problem. “Playful” implies that the novel is funny, or piquant. It is not.

It is, however, excellent. What’s playful about the novel is its structure. In the first part, our narrator is the woman known, inaccurately, she tells us, as Lady Hong, a Korean princess of the eighteenth century. The Korean Crown Princess is known in Korea (less so in the rest of the world) for her memoirs, written for different audiences over a period of some time. The version of the princess that Ms. Drabble presents is an unreliable narrator, to be sure, sometimes blinded by her own interests or those of her family. She drifts into long digressions, circles around issues, leaves out salient details. She’s also dead, knows she’s dead, and has the advantage, with some limitations, of looking over history to fill out her own story. What she wants is to be remembered, to reach a wider audience (she won me over — I have to find those memoirs!).

In the second part of the novel, she succeeds. We switch gears entirely to follow Dr Barbara Halliwell in the present day as she attends an academic conference, makes a friend, and embarks on an affair in Seoul. Throughout her time in Korea, she’s drawn to the tale of the Crown Princess, unsure who gave her the memoirs and what she should be taking away from her visit, her affair, her very life. I’ll stop here, because you know I never offer spoilers. Let’s just say that the story keeps spiraling outward and inward, and the last few pages are a treat, so very clever. It’s a novel I’d be pleased to have on my shelf, and I hope you and A.S. Byatt will read it too.

Recommended Reading: Ragnarok, by A.S. Byatt

I was raised on opera as a child; I couldn’t identify a New Kids on the Block Song (still can’t), but I could pick Wagner out of a lineup every time. So with his Ring Cycle in mind, I was excited to read A.S. Byatt’s take on Ragnarok, or The End of the Gods, especially because I found Possession to be such a wonderful book (and if you read it, you might remember that Ash wrote a poem called “Ragnarok”).

Sorry, library copy.

Sorry, library copy.

Fans of A.S. Byatt will encounter her erudition and her command of language here, with cascading descriptions and lists reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The language is so satisfying, so meaty, that this short book (171 pages) takes quite a while to savor.

What impressed me most, in this telling, is the structure of the work. It’s not exactly a novel, but not exactly D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, either (my favorite book of mythology when I was a child). But there is a narrative flow, and the book opens with “a thin child in wartime” encountering the stories of these irascible, imperfect, impulsive gods and their creations. But these myths, as A.S. Byatt points out in an essay that closes the book, differ greatly from fairy tales; the good do not always prosper, and the bad are not always punished; indeed, Ragnarok is the end of the gods. The world with its gods dies and is not reborn.

The book is not an allegory for the woes of our world, but present in the author’s mind was, she writes, the steady bursts of destruction we inflict on the earth ourselves, without any help from the gods.

Recommended Reading: Asunder, by Chloe Aridjis

I think we l know how I feel about jacket copy and blurbs. To wit: not good. But for once, the blurbs are on to something, and it’s the gem that is Chloe Aridjis’s Asunder.

AsunderThe novel follows Marie, a guard at London’s National Gallery, through her perambulations at work, at home, and abroad. This is isn’t a novel with extravagant plot points; instead, it’s superb gathering of images and moments, a testament to a quiet life. To observation.

It’s about the entropy of decay and the possibility for violent change. It’s a weirdly beautiful excavation of life. And the images! New, lively, strange.  Here’s one example. Marie is examining a painting:

It was a mysterious painting, of a seaside landscape with a few human figures, and my eyes first came to rest on the wall of ancient wrinkled cliffs resembling a procession of tired elephants. (111)

Arresting, isn’t it?  I felt swallowed up the images as I read. I loved this novel, and if you’ll excuse me, I‘ll be off to find my own copy.

Recommended Reading: American Wife, by Curtis Sittenfeld

At 555 pages, this novel, inspired by the life of Laura Bush, is quite an undertaking, in more ways than one. The original four Literary Wives bloggers — Angela, Ariel, Audra, and Emily — have reviewed the book with more insight than I’ll be able to muster, but I thought I’d share just a few thoughts.

American Wife

First, some highlights, passage-wise, for me:

  • Alice’s love for the Midwest: “It is quietly lovely, not preening with the need to have its attributes remarked on” (53).
  • “When you are a high school girl, there is nothing more miraculous than a high school boy” (58).
  • The passage about Alice and Charlie during the tornado warning (193-96); Alice and Charlie are from Wisconsin, and Ms. Sittenfield, like yours truly, is a native of Ohio. I live outside Boston now, and the Boston-born didn’t have tornado drills growing up, and are always amused at the description I provide. But I’ve never been really close to  a tornado, and I have no desire to be, ever. Sidebar here: Immediately read Catherine Pierce’s amazing poem “The Mother Warns the Tornado.”
  • “I have always had a soft spot for people who talk a lot beause I feel as if they’re doing the work for me” (223).
  • I can’t find the page, but I liked the way Alice recognized a single woman based on what she was buying at the grocery store — yogurt and apples (though I have to say, I bought my fair share of hamburger as a single woman. Spaghetti is always the right answer to “What should I make for dinner?”). The novel is full of nice little details like this.
  • Almost any passage involving Alice’s grandmother.
  • “But I should note, for all my resistance to organized religion, that I don’t believe Charlie could have quit drinking without it. It provided him with a way to structure his behavior, and a way to explain that behavior, both past and present, to himself. Perhaps fiction has, for me, served a similar purpose—what is a narrative arc if not the imposition of order on disparate events?—and perhaps it is my avid reading that has been my faith all along” (429-30).

I found Alice, the main character, both intriguing and infuriating, both a product of her time and well ahead of it.

I think Alice’s nods to her privileged existence (when she’s at the pool with Jadey, when she’s thinking about the war at the novel’s end) were cursory, but I couldn’t tell if this is a fault in Alice’s thinking or the author’s failing. Sure, Alice is charitable and cares about others less fortunate than she, but she allows her values to be completely overshadowed by her husband’s. It’s as if Alice disappears, and I didn’t feel Ms. Sittenfield provided a satisfactory explanation for Alice’s weak attempt to explain herself (sorry, “they elected him, not me” doesn’t cut it). At the very least, as a citizen, she should feel free to express her views to her husband.

(Please note: I’m not judging Laura Bush here, because I don’t have the access to the interior self that Sittenfeld provides us for Alice. And literacy rules.)

Despite my frustration, I thought the book was excellent, and as I went along, I began to think that maybe the unresolved ambiguities in Alice’s thoughts and behavior are meant to be inscrutable; after all, how much do we really know about our neighbors’ marriages, or about our own? How much do we want to admit to ourselves?