Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

Bethany Ball – The Pessimists

A small community in Connecticut. Three couples of middle age all have their respective struggles: Margot has never gotten over the loss of her baby girl, their three sons can only make up so much for this; while she is grieving, her husband Richard is having extramarital affairs to forget about his homely negative mood. Gunter and Rachel are new to the small place, the Swede has serious problems of adaptation and can only wonder about the small town Americans, whereas his wife Rachel tries to be supermom and get her children into the prestigious Petra school. Virginia’s daughter already attends this institution but the mother is starting to wonder if the place is actually a good choice while her husband Trip has developed an end of time fear and wants his family to be prepared for the worst case which is sure to come soon. While the parents are occupied with themselves, their kids are educated in a quite unique institution with very special educational views.

Bethany Ball paints a rather gloomy picture of three middle-aged families. The love at first sight and life on cloud number nine is only a faint memory, if they are still interested in their partner, this is more out of convenience than out of love. Their children are strange creatures with which they have rather complicated relationships and whom they do not seem to understand at all. Life does not have much to offer outside the big city and so, consequently, the turn into “The Pessimists”.

It is upper class white suburbia life that the novel ridicules: the invite the “right” people to dibber parties even though they hate barbecuing and do not even like their guests. The women are reduced to being housewives even though they had successful careers in the city, yet, these are not compatible with life in a small town. They are not even aware of how privileged they are, they feel depressed and deceived by life, seemingly none of them got what they expected from life. Apart from being miserable, they pretend that all is best in their life to keep up the picture they want the others to see. Only brief glances behind the facade allow the truth to show.

This rather dark atmosphere is broken up repeatedly by episodes of Petra school. It is the absolutely exaggerated picture of an alternative institution which actually does not take education too seriously, but is highly occupied with spiritual well-being and a lifestyle nobody can ever stick too. The information mails they send out to the parents are simply hilarious and made me laugh out loud more than once – however, I don’t doubt that such places might actually exist.

A satire of small town America which is funny on the one hand but quite serious regarding the message behind the superficial storyline.

Bill Clegg – The End of the Day

Bill Clegg – The End of the Day

Dana Goss, a wealthy heiress only a couple of years shy of 70, decides to visit Jackie, once her best friend with whom she shared everything, but whom she has not seen for almost five decades. Jackie sees Dana approach but hides and does not open the door. It triggers memories of a time long long ago. At the same time, a young man meets his father to tell him about his new-born granddaughter, soon after, the father dies from an aneurysm, not only leaving his son behind but also many questions. His mother Alice might answer them but this would mean revealing a secret she has kept to herself for so many years that she cannot reveal it now. Taxi driver Lupita Lopez in Kauai is also unexpectedly confronted with the almost forgotten past when she receives a phone call. All these lives are connected by events that each of them has ignored successfully.

Bill Clegg’s story is set in the fictional town of Wells in Connecticut where the old farm house is the starting point of some live changing events. The different characters narrate their stories thus filling gaps the other leave and adding another perspective to what has been told before. They all try to hide things they do not want to think about, but those secrets push to the surface to be ultimately revealed.

At first, the different accounts seem only loosely connected, it takes some time to understand how they are linked and why after all those years, the memory of that time is still that hurtful. The characters are all complex in themselves and presented in detail thus giving insight in their state of mind and thinking. There is not the ultimate good guy and the bad guy; it is lives having taken a turn which is not to be undone, decision that have been made which also had consequences, good ones as well as bad ones. Thus, a wonderful illustration of how life on earth works sometimes.

Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

Jami Attenberg – All This Could Be Yours

A heart attack will surely be the end of Victor, it is just a question of days and until he breathes for the last time. His wife Barbra visits him in hospital, accompanies him during these last days remembering the good, but most all the bad times they had together. Their daughter Alex also rushes to New Orleans to say good-bye, even though she is reluctant to do so. Their son Gary, however, refuses to see his father. He hides in Los Angeles and is unwilling to even talk to his family. Victor was a man with two faces, one for the family and one for the world outside. He was successful, at least it seemed so, but his success was founded on his character and this undoubtedly had some very dark spots.

“(…) it was then she realized that the stories he told were bad, that he did bad things. Even though he thought he was a hero. Simultaneously bored and intrigued, she asked him if what he did was illegal. ‘No one is innocent in this life. (…)’ “

Victor is a man of action, he knows what he wants and he knows how to get it. Contradiction and opposition are not things he tolerates, neither at work nor at home. If somebody dares to disobey, he either bullies them – like his secretaries – or smacks and beats them, like his wife and children. Now, immobile and comatose, he is not in control anymore and he cannot have any influence on his family members’ thoughts. That’s when all that has been hidden for so many years, finally surfaces.

Jami Attenberg’s latest novel gives an insight in a highly dysfunctional family. The head of it ultimately hors de combat, the toxic structures and behaviour come to the light. You wonder how and why a wife could ever accept and endure such a life, yet, the deeper you dive into Barbra’s thoughts, the more comprehensible her actions and behaviour become. She is weak and has never been ready to fight. Victor provided her with a certain standard of living and her contribution was never to dig deep, not to look too closely, but to ignore what she learnt over all those years at his side.

“Ah yes, the children. She hadn’t wanted them; Victor had. But her body was needed for  production.”

The relationship between the parents and the children has always been cold. The mother never prevented the abuse just as she accepted how Victor treated herself. The daughter Alex seems to struggle most with it. She is caught between an understanding of what to do before you lose someone forever – forgive, forget, make peace – and her actual feeling which highly contradict this. Even when Victor is in agony, he makes life hard for his next of kin.

“All This Could Be Yours” is very cleverly constructed novel. Even in his absence, this very bad man domineers his family’s thoughts and shows that he is capable of ruining everybody’s life. Wonderfully written and brilliantly made from a psychological point of view, there is not much you could wish for more in a novel.

Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

Megan Collins – The Winter Sister

It’s been sixteen years since her sister Persephone was murdered. Sylvie has created herself a new life, far away from home, but now she has to return to her hometown and confront her seriously ill mother. It doesn’t take long until all that happened that winter night comes back to her, especially when she meets Ben, her sister’s boyfriend, her sister’s murderer. Yet, Ben insists in his innocence. But can she trust him? And what about her mother who always refused to tell the girls who their respective fathers are and who also refused to talk about that night. Is it time now to open Pandora’s box and let the truth out?

Megan Collins’ debut is at the first glance a typical murder case: an 18-year-old girl is strangled and the murderer has been running free for sixteen years. However, at the second glance, it is much more a story about family relationships, about secrets and about love and trust. The small family of three females lived on secrets and lies, had they ever been open and honest with each other, the death of one daughter could have been prevented. Yet, that’s how human beings are, sometimes they lack the necessary courage to do what is right and thus risk to lose all they love.

The novel is well-created, even though at a certain point it is quite obvious how all the dots are linked, I found it full of suspense. Telling the story through Sylvie’s eyes gives you a certain bias at the beginning, but the missing pieces and gaps add to the thrill and the big questions marks Sylvie herself feels can also be experienced by the reader. Collins’ biggest strength is certainly the creation of the characters who all act convincingly and appear quite authentic. I am looking forward to read more from the author.

Meg Wolitzer – The Female Persuasion [Das weibliche Prinzip]

Meg Wolitzer – The Female Persuasion

Greer Kadetsky hätte eigentlich auf eine der Ivy-League-Universitäten gehen sollen, aber es scheiterte am Geld, da ihre Eltern die Anträge auf ein Stipendium vermasselten. Also bleibt sie zu Hause wohnen und geht auf das Ryland College in Connecticut. Dort macht sie bei einer der typischen Partys Bekanntschaft mit Darren Tinzler, der sich gleich reihenweise den jungen Studentinnen aufdrängt und sich das nimmt, was er möchte. Die Universität versucht den Skandal zu verhindern und lässt ihn trotz zahlreicher Aussagen weiblicher Studierender davonkommen. Als kurze Zeit später die charismatische Frauenrechtlerin Faith Frank einen Vortrag hält, bittet Greer sie um einen Ratschlag, was man den tun könne, um sich in einer so offenkundig Männer-dominierten Welt durchzusetzen. Diese Begegnung wird ihr weiteres Leben bestimmen, da ihr Faith nach dem Abschluss einen Job in ihrer Organisation Loci, die sich für benachteiligte Frauen einsetzt, anbietet. Voller Enthusiasmus startet Greer in ihr neues Leben in New York. Ihr Freund, den sie schon aus Schultagen kennt, verfolgt derweil gleichermaßen seine Karriere. Was so vielversprechend beginnt, bekommt jedoch bald Risse und beide müssen sich fragen, was im Leben letztlich wirklich zählt und wie ehrlich sie gegenüber sich selbst waren.

Einmal mehr kann Meg Wolitzer restlos überzeugen. Wieder einmal, wie auch in „The Interestings“ und „Belzhar“ wählt sie junge Figuren auf dem Weg zum Erwachsenwerden als Protagonisten. Sie passen nicht wirklich in die Welt, in der sie leben, haben große Erwartungen an ihre eigene Zukunft und dank der Talente, die ihnen in die Wiege gelegt wurden, scheint es auch so, als wenn sich diese realisieren ließen. Doch das Leben verläuft nicht geradlinig und bald schon kommen Hürden, die die Figuren erst einmal überwinden müssen.

In ihrem aktuellen Buch dominiert neben diesem typischen coming-of-age-Thema jedoch noch ein weiterer Aspekt, der im Kontext der vergangenen Monate noch eine höhere Relevanz erhält. Auch wenn die schillernde Faith Frank eine Vorreiterin der Frauenrechte ist und sich ihr Organisation dem Kampf für die unterdrückten Geschlechtsgenossinnen widmet, auch wenn Greer schon zu Beginn belästigt wird und die Studentinnen versuchen sich gegen das ungerecht milde Urteil gegen den Täter zu wehren, ist das Buch keine feministische Kampfansage.

Faith Greer ist nur in den Augen der jungen Mitarbeiterinnen, als deren Mentorin sie viel eher fungiert denn als Chefin, die idealistische Kämpferin. Die Realität sieht anders aus und Greer wird bald schon vor einen Gewissenskonflikt gestellt. Gleichzeitig erfährt auch die Geschichte um Greers Freund Cory eine feministische Umkehr, ist dieser bereit alle maskulinen Attribute zu opfern und sein Leben nach einem Schicksalsschlag völlig neu auszurichten.

Meg Wolitzer beginnt ihre Geschichte im Jahr 2006, am Ende sind wir 2019 und Greer hat doch noch ihre Ideale verfolgen können und ist dabei auch überaus erfolgreich. Die Autorin wurde in ihrer Heimat von den Kritikern vielfach mit dem Vorwurf kritisiert, einem Zeitgeist hinterherzurennen und sich zu sehr von dem aktuellen politischen Geschehen der USA beeinflussen zu lassen. Dies ist mir jedoch zu einfach, denn Wolitzers Frauen kommen keineswegs als die unschuldigen Opfer daher: Faith wie auch Greer haben betrogen, andere Frauen betrogen, auf deren Rücken ihre Karrieren verfolgt und damit ziemlich genau das getan, was die Feministinnen bei den Männern kritisieren. Und die Rollenmuster werden gleichermaßen in Frage gestellt. Auch liefert das Buch keine einfachen Antworten, denn die gibt es auch 2019 noch nicht, außer vielleicht Greers Erkenntnis, dass sie ihre „Outer Voice“ benutzen muss, wenn sie in dieser Welt gehört werden will.

Ein vielschichtiger Roman, der durchaus mehr als aktuell ist, aber sicherlich auch diese Zeit überdauern wird.

Zoe Whittall – The Best Kind of People

Zoe Whittall – The Best Kind of People

Avalon Hills, Connecticut. The Woodbury family is a kind of an institution in the small community. George’s father has helped to set up the town, George himself is a popular teacher and a hero since he prevented a school shooting ten years ago. His wife Joan works as a nurse and actively contributes to different kinds of charity work, their son Andrew is a successful lawyer in New York and their 17-year-old daughter Sadie a real prodigy. Their life is just perfect. Until one day, a bomb explodes and blows up their whole life: some underage girls accuse George of having tried to rape them during a school trip. What seems to be unbelievable is taken serious by the police and George has to go to prison. Slowly, the family’s confidence in the father’s innocence falls apart. Is he really the man they believed he was?

Zoe Whittall’s novel is a masterpiece in character study. She does not focus on sensationalist facts, actually the accusations, the arguments and the evidence brought forward to support George’s guilt just play a random role in the novel. The centre are Joan and Sadie, wife and daughter who are confronted with the question if they have been fooled and who have to struggle with conflicting emotions within themselves. Their development from absolute supporter, via sceptical but still loyal to building a life without him is remarkably and convincingly portrayed.

It is especially Sadie who can persuade me as a reader. A teenager who is completely knocked off the track, whose life was well organised, everything prearranged and clear in every respect has now to cope with uncertainties, with shades of grey, gets to know her former friends from a completely new and absolutely hostile side. Confused over whom and what to believe, she loses contact to her inner self, tries out pot and pills to numb down her irritating feelings. Strong only for hours or moments, then thrown back again. She is a very authentic character and her struggles appear to be quite authentic.

Since we only get one perspective, the one of the family, we do not really know what actually happened, we never really hear George’s point of view and thus the reader is kept in the dark throughout the novel. There are hints that all might have been set up, yet, then, there is evidence that George is guilty and has not been faithful – in this way, there is an underlying suspense which keeps you going on reading. I enjoyed the novel, for me, it absolutely fulfilled the expectations.

Lauren Oliver – Wenn du stirbst, zieht dein ganzes Leben an dir vorbei, sagen sie

Lauren Oliver – Wenn du stirbst, zieht dein ganzes Leben an dir vorbei, sagen sie

Samantha Kingstons Leben ist perfekt: sie gehört zur angesagten Clique der High-School, hat mit Rob einen Freund, um den sie viele beneiden, ist hübsch und reich. Der 12. Februar soll alles perfekt machen: morgens die Valentinstagsgrüße in der Schule und abends wird sie endlich mit Rob schlafen. Alles beginnt ganz normal: die Schule hat nichts Ungewöhnliches zu bieten, dann bereitet sie sich mit den Freundinnen auf eine Party vor. Doch der Abend endet anders als geplant: bei einem Unfall kommen sie ums Leben. Doch am nächsten Morgen wacht Sam wieder auf. Es ist nochmal der 12. Februar und sie kann ihren letzten Tag nochmals erleben und vielleicht was ändern. Sieben Mal wird sich dies für sie wiederholen.

Das Grundkonzept ist eher ungewöhnlich, wenn auch nicht wirklich innovativ, allerdings hat die Autorin genug Humor, die Protagonistin selbst auf „Und täglich grüßt das Murmeltier“ hinweisen zu lassen. Ansonsten bietet der Roman alles, was das Young Adult Herz begehrt: die High-School mit ihren typischen Alltagssorgen, die von allen bewunderte Mädchen-Clique, die erste große Liebe, viel Gerede über Klamotten und Schminke. Und natürlich der obligatorische erhobene Zeigefinger, dass man doch bitte nicht gemein, sondern nett zu den Mitmenschen sein soll und sich für die Außenseiter einsetzen muss. Alle Stereotypen erfüllt, Leser des Genres werden es danken.

Was jedoch auffällt, ist die Figurenzeichnung, wobei ich mich gefragt habe, ob ich einfach zu alt bin, um die Figuren so wahrzunehmen, wie sie sein sollen. Für mich ist die Protagonistin einfach ein verwöhntes Gör, dem es viel zu gut geht und die in ihren Egotrip sieben Mal erfolgreich durchzieht und dafür auch noch belohnt wird. Vermutlich soll sie cool und bewundernswert wirken, dabei wirken ihre Kleidungsbeschreibungen auf mich eher billig bis nuttig und dass sie sich permanent darüber beklagt, dass sie von den Eltern zu kurzgehalten wird (man bedenke: sie bekommt im Jahr nur zweimal 500 Euro zum Kleidershoppen!), macht sie auch nicht gerade sympathischer. Da ihre Empathiefähigkeit nur gering ausgebildet ist, braucht sie auch mehrere Anläufe um zu verstehen, dass sie genau das ist, was ein anderes Mädchen ihr vorwirft: ein Miststück. Selbst als ihr langsam aufgeht, dass ihr Verhalten vielleicht eher suboptimal ist, wird ihr Handeln immer noch von dem Gedanken geleitet, möglichst selbst zu profitieren oder zumindest kein ganz so schlechtes Gewissen mehr haben zu müssen. Das macht das Lesen zu einer gewaltigen Quälerei, da man permanent den Gedanken hegt, dass die Welt einfach eine bessere wäre, wenn sie endlich tot wär. Dass die anderen ihr da in nichts nachstehen, macht es kaum besser.

Alles in allem ein Buch, dass hervorragend auf die zu liefernden Klischees abgestimmt ist, durch besonders widerwärtige Figuren besticht und weiter nichts zu bieten hat, was für eine Leseempfehlung sprechen würde.