Tracy Dobmeier/Wendy Katzman – Girls with Bright Futures

Tracy Dobmeier/Wendy Katzman – Girls with Bright Futures

Elliott Bay Academy surely is the best school you can find in Seattle. Thus, the kids of the superrich can be found there, making friends who can be useful later in life. Yet, when college admission process starts, things become a bit tense since now, they are competing for places at the best universities. Alicia Stone is quite relaxed even though her daughter isn’t he brightest, but her money can make up for this. A huge donation to Stanford, a professor to write the essays – this should be enough to secure the place. Kelly, who herself attended Stanford, also wants to get her daughter in. Krissie’s results are brilliant but due to the limited financial means, Kelly must use information and especially gossip to bring her girl into a good starting position. The fight will be hard, especially when the prestigious university announces to only accept one pupil from EBA. Alicia and Kelly can do the maths: it will be difficult to pass Winnie, outstanding and excelling student of a single parent mother with no means or connections. Mothers can become tigers when they fight for their kids, but Winnie’s mum Maren never would have believed that they would be ready to kill her girl to get what they want.

If it wasn’t for the 2019 college admissions bribery scandal, I would classify Tracy Dobmeier and Wendy Katzman’s novel highly entertaining but far from reality. However, the fraud revealed showed that this isn’t a topic parents take easy but are willing to risk everything just to get a place at the supposedly best school. Living in a country where university admission works in a totally different way and where the idea of top universities you have to have graduated from to have the chance of a career is more or less non-existent, it is fascinating and repellent at the same time to look in the characters’ heads and to follow their trains of thought.

The whole story is centred around the three mother-daughter-teams, yet, that’s all they share. Alicia is in a top position of a tech company and her outstanding career makes her a well-known and admired person everywhere. Her tough workday has some secondary effects, though, she somehow has lost connection with her daughter and doesn’t care about her feelings or wishes but expects her to comply with her commands just as her employees and her husband. Kelly and Krissie’s relationship isn’t healthy either, the girl can hardly support the pressure that her parents put on her. Winnie and Maren are in a totally different situation. Winnie is gifted and has set her mind on going to Stanford, she’s got no help at all, but worked hard for her dream and is convinced that she deserves it. Maren loves her daughter but she also knows that the price will be high if Winnie is accepted: working for Alicia she will surely lose her job and not easily find anything else. She knows her boss well and she has no doubts about what Alicia is capable of when she is angered by someone. Nevertheless, Maren cannot believe that Alicia might be behind the hit-and-run that nearly kills Winnie.

It is these mixed feelings between fascination and utter disgust that keep you reading. More than once I thought this is totally unbelievable but then, well, the mothers are competing about the top position in the game of “who is willing to go to the maximum and throw all scruples and morals overboard”. Simultaneously, seeing who many characters suffer, what this behaviour does to the families and, first and foremost, the daughters, is totally sad.

Hilariously narrated with wonderfully crafted characters and also interesting side plots, an outstanding novel which, if it weren’t for its lengths, I would have read in one sitting.

Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me

Jonathan Coe – Mr Wilder and Me

With her twin daughters about to leave the family nest, Calista has to reassess her life. Before focussing on raising the girls, she had a career in the film business as a composer which started by sheer coincidence. She still can well remember the events of 1977 when she met director Billy Wilder in LA and was later invited to work as a translator during his shooting of Fedora on the Greek island of Corfu. The weeks there changed her life forever, not only can she see behind the facade of the glamourous film business, but this is also herself turning from innocent girl to adult woman.

When I first happened to read one of Jonathan Coe’s novels, I was totally flashed by his narration and wondered how this author could have gone unnoticed for such a long time. It is no surprise then that also his latest novel “Mr Wilder and Me” was a thoroughly enjoyable read for me which I relished from the first to the last line.

“This was how Mr Wilder liked to work. He liked a busy, gregarious set with lots of people watching from the sidelines: reporters, photographers, hangers-on, passers-by. It was one of the sources of his energy.“

Even though the story tells Calista’s coming-of-age story, it is much more an homage paid to one of the greatest directors of all times. Calista is a wonderful choice to observe the already elderly film maker, with her fresh and naive eye, she can watch him closely without being distracted by the name he has acquired. She is timid and shy, but also sensitive which allows her to see through his public image and understand why Fedora is especially important to him.

“We had both come to the same realization: the realization that what we had to give, nobody really wanted any more.”

His time is already over, a new generation of directors is about to take over and financing the film has been all but easy, yet, he has one last mission to accomplish which lies much more in his family history than in his artistic creativity. The film has been called old-fashioned and from the distance of four decades, one can surely say that it marks the end of an era.

Apart from the plot, it is first of all the atmosphere which is striking. No matter where and at what time of her life, Calista’s mood and often contradictory thoughts and emotions a strongly present and lead the narration. It is not the big drama or event which mark the action, but rather the slow change within the protagonist and her constant careful reassessment of herself. It is a book to read slowly and to simply enjoy.

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Daisy Johnson – Sisters

Two sisters, September and July, just 10 months apart in age but sticking together like twins, even more, just as if they were only one person. In Oxford, where they first lived with their mother, an author of children’s books featuring two girls just like her own daughters, they were always in trouble and didn’t make friends with the other kids. By moving to the old family house, their mother hopes things will get easier. However, the spooky surroundings with walls who could tell decades of dark stories, triggers something between the girls which makes their unhealthy bond even more dangerous for the younger and weaker of the two sisters.

Daisy Johnson portrays a sisterly connection which goes far beyond what is known to link siblings. The fact that the girls are born within only a couple of months makes them grow up and experience everything together. They are like one person separated incidentally, also their character seems to have split in the two: September the wild and furious one, July, in contrast, obedient and more thoughtful. Since she is younger, she easily gives in to her sister’s will and thus follows without ever challenging her.

The atmosphere is gloomy in every line. Right from the start, you sense that some catastrophe is looming and just waiting to present itself. Even though at times, the sisterly bond also seems to be protective, the negative impact is obvious. Their mother is detached, she suffers from a depression which makes it impossible for her to see what is coming, she senses that the relationship her daughters have formed in detrimental, even harmful for July, but she is unable to do something about it.

An intense and vivid narrative with quite some eerie notes.

Claire Douglas – Do not Disturb

claire-douglas-do-not-disturb
Claire Douglas – Do Not Disturb

After her husband’s breakdown, Kirsty and her family move from London to Hywelphilly, a small village in Wales where they buy a guesthouse. After weeks of refurbishing, they look forward to welcoming the first guests, among them to Kirsty’s dislike her cousin Selena whom she hasn’t seen for more than sixteen years. They had been like sisters, but Selena’s constant lying lead to the inevitable break. Kirsty’s two daughters Evie and Amelia struggle with the move at first, but when Selena and her daughter Ruby arrive, the house awakes. The cousins manage to sort out their quarrels; yet, Kirsty cannot get rid of the feeling that Selena still does not tell her the complete truth. When Selena’s former boyfriend shows up to rent a room, the atmosphere gets tense and with the arrival of Kirsty’s brother and his wife, trouble is in the air. And then, the worst fears come true: Selena gets murdered.

I really liked the novel because Claire Douglas has well dosed the revelation of secrets the characters keep – and there are many of them. Everybody has something to hide, buried down in his or her mind, even the nice ones are not what they seem at the first glance. There is something mysterious about the house, the whispers of the village inhabitants add to this and many of the incidents are hard to make sense of.

The novel is told from Kirsty’s perspective, quite normally, you are biased in what she tells as you only get her limited point of view. On the other hand, this adds to the suspense and you can easily share her feeling of unease. To me, Kirsty is authentic in her action and in the way she tries to protect her family. Since it is not clear where the threat comes from, you suspiciously eye all the other characters simply to learn in the end that you were completely wrong. I absolutely liked that especially since the whole mystery is solved convincingly.

“Do not disturb” triggers the biggest fear: having evil in your own home, the place where you want to feel safe and secure and where you assume that also your children are protected. Many twists and turns and unexpected revelations keep suspense high throughout the novel, a mystery thriller just as it should be.

Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

tamara-colchester-the-heart-is-a-burial-ground
Tamara Colchester – The Heart is a Burial Ground

What can a daughter learn from her mother? Four generations of women of one family suffer from their respective mother’s way of life, the choices they made and the future they planned for their kids. The first generation is embodied by Caresse Crosby, Harry Crosby’s wife, a young American who freed herself from Puritan Bostonian convictions and was looking for freedom and a life for the arts in Europe. Her daughter Diana grows up in Paris between all the famous people of the so called “Lost Generation” and never had to chance to just be a girl, too much was projected in her. Diana’s daughters Elena and Leonie found ways of opposing their mother by opting for very traditional models of love and life. Elena’s young children, one even unborn, are now the fourth generation who grows up with a heavy legacy.

The novel oscillates between times and places. We meet the Parisian It-crowd of the twenties when Caresse and Harry have their big time and Diana is just a girl. Then we jump to Caresse’s last days in Italy, decades after she has lost her husband and when her grand-daughters are already grown-up women. Another 20 years on, Diana’s life is coming to an end. Yet, no matter what point in time in general or in the characters’ life, the core question is always the same: what do you expect from life and how much love do you need?

Alternating the setting surely makes the novel lively, on the other hand, the development of the characters suffers from this non-linear or non-chronological arrangement. Even though you can make out especially Diana’s development, her daughters, for example, remained a bit a mystery for me. What I found intriguing, however, was the highly complex mother-daughter relationship which becomes very clear in every constellation: on the one hand, unconditional love and the hope that the daughter can break away from conventions and find love and happiness in life, on the other hand, the fact that they cannot live up to their own ideals and that wishes are not fulfilled makes them also reproachful and mean in their later life.

It is quite interesting to see that the author Tamara Colchester herself is a descendant of this family. This raises the question of how much fiction and how much reality you can find in the text. No matter the answer, it’s a novel about strong women and the choices we make in our lives.