Cristina Alger – The Darlings

cristina alger the darlings
Cristina Alger – The Darlings

The Darlings are one of new York’s most famous families. Carter Darling’s investment company makes tons of money, mother Ines is still the most stunning woman at all gala events and their two daughters Merrill and Lily have found perfectly fitting husbands and fulfil their roles of the clever and the beautiful also impeccably. When one of Carter’s business partners commits suicide, the family has to face a crisis they have never seen before and, first and foremost, they have to admit that some things are just not what they pretended them to be: Carter is not the honest businessman, Ines is not the wife who still loves him after all those decades together, and family does not come first, when they feel threatened. What starts with one man taking his life, ends in one of the biggest finance scandals New York has ever seen and the Darlings are at the very centre of it.

Cristina Alger’s novel is a combination of a highly complex financial fraud thriller and a very personal family drama in which almost all characters are put to a test: what are their values, how far are they willing to go to protect their loved ones, how much more important can money be than the lives of people? The mechanics of both, the financial world and a family with their closest friends, are laid open and show the darkest corners of human nature.

Admittedly, “The Darlings” is not a fast paced thriller which keeps you alert all the time. Even though the plot covers just a couple of days and actually moves quite quickly, the author chose to rather go into depths with her characters which I liked a lot since it gives a lot more insight in their thoughts and makes their decision-making a great deal more comprehensible. The sheer number of characters wasn’t easy to manage at the beginning and understanding the connection between them took some time, but in the end, it was all very cleverly connected and set up and no questions was left unanswered. This might be difficult for some readers who prefer a speedy thrill, yet, for those who like stories about human beings and their nature, it is a great read.

Ruth Ware – The Death of Mrs Westaway

ruth-ware-the-death-of-mrs-westaway
Ruth Ware – The Death of Mrs Westaway

Harriet Westaway, called Hal, is broke, totally broke. When she receives a letter stating that her grandmother has died and she is to inherit a substantial sum, this seems to be the solution to all her problems. Yet: the dead woman simply cannot be her grandmother. They share the same last name, but all the dates on the birth certificates show that there must have been a mistake. Nevertheless, she travels to Cornwall to the funeral where she meets “her family”: Harding, Abel and Ezra – presumably her mother Maud’s brothers. Before Maud died three years ago, she never spoke of neither her family nor Hal’s father, she and her mother were all family she had and now, she got three uncles and their families. Hal feels uncomfortable betraying them, even though they apparently do much better in life than she herself and they easily could do without a couple of pounds. But more than the nagging bad conscience she senses that the old mansion, Trepassen, she is staying at has some secrets to hide – especially the deceased Mrs Westaway’s servant Mrs Warren seems to know something she does not want to share – and she recognises Hal. How could that be?

I have read several of Ruth Ware’s novels and I like that she always finds a completely new story and that you are not reminded of any former books – a problem of so many authors who seem to write the same novel over and over again. Even though Ware has become famous for her psychological thrillers, I wouldn’t classify “The Death of Mrs Westaway” as one, for me it is rather a suspenseful family drama without the big thrill but a lot of secrets and mysteries.

What I liked especially was the setting of the old house in which all the secrets have lain buried for two decades. The floor boards creak when you walk on them, there is an old study with masses of books and you can hear the wind howl. Plus, the secretive family who is not very open and welcoming to the stranger and who surely does not want any old stories to be uncovered.

For her protagonist, Ruth Ware has chosen a very unique character. A young orphaned woman is not that rare in those kinds of novels, however, Hal is a tarot reader and has a special capacity of reading people – in order to tell them what they want to hear. She herself does not believe in the cards as fortune-tellers, they are much more providing guidance and concentration at the facts at hand.

The story itself is captivating immediately since you anxiously wait until Hal’s deliberate deception is revealed and she is thrown-out. Then you realise that things might be a bit more complicated and the further you get, the more pieces of the puzzle appear leading to a new picture.

There are many small aspects which make the novel absolutely outstanding, first of all the title which seems so simple since you know right from the start that a certain Mrs Westaway has died. Yet, at the end, there is much more to this than you might have guessed at first. Second, Harriet has a tattoo of a magpie, a reference to her mother and closely linked to Trepassen – which is a corruption of the Cornish word for magpie farm. She calls herself “Hal” which is also the name of the goddess of death in Norse mythology and whom the magpies served.

All in all, a captivating read in which it is worth looking at the details.

Liane Moriarty – Truly Madly Guilty

liane-moriarty-truly-madly-guilty
Liane Moriarty – Truly Madly Guilty

Schon seit ihrer Kindheit sind Clementine und Erika befreundet. Doch das, was sie Freundschaft nennen, gleicht mehr einer seltsamen Abhängigkeit, die einst von Clementines Mutter auferlegt wurde: da Erika aus einem armen und schwierigen Elternhaus kam, musste Clementine mit ihr befreundet sein. Erika bewunderte sie und ihre Familie, was durchaus schmeichelhaft war. Doch nun wird ihre Freundschaft vor eine schwere Probe gestellt: erst die Bitte, von Erika und ihrem Mann Oliver völlig unvorbereitet geäußert, und dann die Ereignisse am selben Abend, als sie bei Erikas Nachbarn Vid und Tiffany zum Grillen eingeladen waren und ein dramatisches Ereignis die gelöste Stimmung schlagartig durchbrach.

Liane Moriarty konnte mich vor einigen Jahren mit „Little Lies“ unglaublich faszinieren, der zweiten Roman, den ich von ihr gelesen habe – „The Husband’s Secret“ –, konnte schon nicht mehr an das Debut nicht heranreichen und leider hat mich auch „Truly Madly Guilty“ nicht ganz gewinnen können. Womöglich liegt es daran, dass die Autorin sehr auf ein Erzählschema festgelegt ist, das beim dritten Versuch nicht mehr so überzeugen kann wie beim ersten. Auch in diesem Roman gibt es wieder zwei Erzählzeitpunkte, die eine am Tag des dramatischen, alles verändernden Ereignisses, die zweite danach bzw. auch davor in der Erinnerung daran, wie die Dinge waren, bevor es dazu kam. Alles läuft auf den einen Moment in der Handlung hinaus, der sehnsüchtig erwartet wird.

Hier genau lag für mich bei dem Roman eines der Probleme: das Hinauszögern soll die Spannung steigern, funktioniert auch bis zu einem gewissen Maße, ist dies jedoch ausgereizt, wird es nur noch nervig und man wünscht sich sehnsüchtig, endlich die erlösende Stelle zu erreichen. Es war einfach keine Spannung und gebannte Erwartung mehr da, zu sehr ging mir das künstliche immer wieder Verschieben auf die Nerven. Die Idee, kleine Zwischenhöhenpunkte einzuschieben, war durchaus nicht schlecht, aber so entsteht auch der Eindruck, zu viel in einen Roman gelegt zu haben, was am Ende auch als Fazit bleibt. Ein Drama hätte gereicht, das hätte die Handlung auch gestrafft und so die Spannung besser abgestimmt.

Hinzu kamen die Figuren, von denen leider keine als wirklicher Sympathieträger taugt. Man hatte bisweilen den Eindruck, dass die Autorin ihre Figuren hasst, so sehr werden sie alle immer wieder durch ihre Fehler und Unzulänglichkeiten charakterisiert: Oliver und Erika sind kleinkariert, besserwisserisch und extrem angepasst; ihre Nachbarn Vid und Tiffany das extreme Gegenteil, wobei ihr protziger Reichtum und die Vernachlässigung der Tochter auch keine Pluspunkte bringen; Clementine und ihr Ehemann bestechen durch andauernde Gereiztheit und Streitigkeiten, die nur schwer zu ertragen sind.

So wird die durchaus überzeugende Grundidee zu einer Tour de Force, die sich nur sehr langsam dem Ziel entgegenschleppt.

Fiona Barton – The Child

fiona-barton-the-child.png
Fiona Barton – The Child

During construction works in London, a builder comes across the dead body of a baby. Angela and Nick hope that they will be finally relieved. For almost 40 years now, they have waited for a sign of their daughter Alice back then abducted from the maternity ward. The police investigate all options while journalist Kate Waters is looking for a story to get her career back on track. She quickly uncovers people who lived around the building site area decades before and who might have witnessed something; yet quickly she has to realize that there is much more behind the story than she initially thought. When another woman claims to baby to be hers, Kate and the police do not know whom to believe and that they are about to uncover much more than they suspected.

Fiona Barton tells her story from different perspectives: first of all, we have Kate the journalist who is looking for some kind of heart-breaking story to report and thus to escape being fired like many others from her team. We only get bits and bobs from her private life, a son who refuses to pursue his studies any further, but that’s it. Thus, this character is mainly illustrated through her actions as a journalist. I quite liked her, she not the hard-boiled reporter who doesn’t care about the people she writes about, but tries find a way between securing a good story and not exposing the people involved. On the other hand, we have Angela the mother who has been suffering for 40 years and who is not willing to give up hope to find her daughter. I am not sure if this character is really authentic, that a family and a marriage can survive such a stroke of fate is rather seldom. Emma, the last of the three protagonists remains incomprehensible for a long time and thus keeps suspense of the novel high. Much of what she says does not make sense and her role in the whole story is rather mysterious.

Even though the end is quite foreseeable, it liked the story. It is fast paced and the different perspectives keep you alert on who says what and who knows what. The mystery around the buried baby is solved convincingly even though I wonder of the subplot about the rapists was really required.  I wouldn’t necessarily call it a crime novel or even thriller. It is rather a psychological drama with a lot of suspense to me. And compared to Fiona Barton’s first novel “The Widow”, this is much stronger both in the plot and the characters’ design.

Margaret Atwood – Hag-Seed

hag-seed
Margaret Atwood – Hag-Seed

After many years as Artistic Director of the Makeshiweg Theatre Festival, Felix is finally about to have one of Shakespeare’s most famous and magical plays performed: The Tempest. This will be a show like no other before – but fate has another plan for him; or rather Tony, his assistant, who has to deliver the information of Felix being fired by the board, a treachery well played by the second in row. Felix withdraws to some far away place where he not only mourns the loss of his job, but also the loss of his beloved daughter Miranda to whom he still talks as if she were alive. One day, the chance of getting back to work arises: The Fletcher Correctional Centre has set up some correction scheme involving theatre and Felix is to become the new teacher. He makes the prisoners experience Shakespeare in a completely new way and the outcome is stunning. In his fourth year, he selects The Tempest to see it finally on stage – and with the magical play comes his chance of revenge.

Hag-Seed is a novel of the Hogarth series in which authors re-write Shakespeare’s plays and transfer them to our days. Margaret Atwood has chosen quite a clever way of doing so, she integrates Shakespeare’s play into her novel, but that is – of course – not all this wonderful author manages to do: we have the play in the play, and we have characters who themselves incorporate the roles of the play in their fictional lives. Felix is undoubtedly Prospero using all his power to steer the people around him and to manipulate reality. His daughter Miranda, albeit dead, parallels Shakespeare’s Miranda in a very clever way. Sal and Tony, Felix’ enemies in the theatre world, can easily be identified as Antonio and Alonso. And the prisoners act as spirits and goddesses performing for Prospero-Felix. Apart from the characters, there are so many parallels between the drama and the novel, it would go far beyond the scope of this review to name them all.

Finding the parallels and detecting how Margaret Atwood transformed the drama into a modern novel, is great fun, but even more so is reading the dialogues. It is rare to have so much pleasure and entertainment when reading a rather serious plot; Felix’ interaction with the guards is hilarious, his work with the prisoner-students and their questions against the background of their criminal records and experiences in a world far away from elitist theatres, are fascinating. I wonder if the approach Felix’ chooses might not actually be the perfect way to bring Shakespeare’s ghost closer to today’s youth and thus become a model for teachers.

We know how much is hidden in Shakespeare’s plays and I have the impression that there is so much more in Atwood’s novel which I did not see at the first reading. This is definitely a novel worth giving a second read to dig deeper into what she has created. Coming back to the idea of the Hogarth series, I liked Anne Tyler’s version of The Taming of the Shrew a lot, but Hag-Seed is simply a masterpiece.