Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

Sarah Gilmartin – Dinner Party

It’s the anniversary the siblings spend together like every year. Kate has neatly prepared everything in her small apartment for her oldest brother Peter and the younger one Ray with his wife Liz. 16 years were not enough to get over the loss of her twin sister Elaine whom she remembers like yesterday. The atmosphere is tense and soon after dinner the guests leave, but Ray returns with a special present which sends Kate back in the time when she and Elaine were just kids, then teenagers and the fateful day of her death. Yet, it was not just this tragic event that made the family unhappy, even long time before, none of them did real lead the life they wanted and, seemingly, neither do they in the present.

I was a bit astonished about the novel, even though the title is “Dinner Party”, Sarah Gilmartin grants this only a brief chapter in the novel, however, it is the event that triggers the memories in Kate and explains how she became the lonely, highly obsessive woman we meet at the beginning. The author added a subtitle, “A Tragedy”, which is totally adequate in terms of the suffering and the sorrowful event the protagonist has to go through. Yet, I am not sure if the reader can feel something like a catharsis while reading. For me, it was a very sad novel showing the impact parents and the family constitution can have on a child and the adult he or she becomes.

Quite naturally, the young twin sisters have a strong bond and can understand each other without words. On their farm, they are far away from other kids and exposed to their mother’s moods. She comes from one of the best families and expects her kids to excel in their ascribed fields, Kate play the piano, for Elaine it is horse-riding. The older brothers have long been a disappointment for the mother, especially Peter with his plans to emigrate to the US. Becoming teenagers does not help the situation and the tensions between mother and father, but also between the two sisters become more and more obvious.

The protagonist is naturally the most striking character. Even as kids, she and Elaine have never been really equal. Elaine was to more extrovert and outgoing twin, she dictated for both of them what to do. From fear of her mother’s frequent outbursts, Kate quickly tries to become the diligent and obedient girl who does everything right. Also as a teenager, she does not rebel but she cannot get over the feeling of being the less loved daughter, the one who does not achieve what is expected from her, the one who can never do anything right. Controlling her feelings and emotions ultimately leads to an obsessive behaviour and when she has found something that is totally controllable, she quite naturally develops an eating disorder.

Dysfunctional relationships, a lack of love and positive support – the best ingredients to hinder a girl from becoming an emotionally stable and self-confident adult. The experiences of the young Kate reflect the problems she shows as an adult. She isn’t able to have a good relationship, she is much too insecure and, on the other hand, she never could get free of her mother and her impact on her feelings. A great character development which gives you also a lot of food for thought.

Alexandra Kleeman – Something New Under the Sun

Alexandra Kleeman – SOmething New Under the Sun

Patrick Hamlin leaves the east coast when his novel is turned into a film. This promises to be his big breakthrough, especially since Cassidy Carter is going to play the lead role. The young film and internet star is sure to attract a great audience. But from the start, Patrick has the sensation that strange things are going on. First, the bunch of youngsters who should care for him but do not seem to have a clue about the job and also Brenda and Jay who hardly show an interest in the film they are about to produce. That life on the west coast differs from his eastern home does not surprise Patrick, yet the extent is astonishing since people heavily rely on a product called WAT-R instead of the ordinary water he knows. At the beginning, he is just annoyed by all the things which seem to go wrong and Cassidy’s diva attitude, however, after a couple of days, the hints that there is something really going on behind the scenes are hard to ignore anymore and thus, Patrick starts to investigate.

Alexandra Kleeman‘s novel is the perfect read of the moment. Many people around the globe are unsure about what to believe and convinced that there is some kind of deep going conspiracy the ordinary people cannot see and therefore are just figures in a game without realising it. The ecological crisis with water shortage and raging wildfires in California is another aspect she cleverly incorporates into the plot.

The reader, together with Patrick, tries to make sense of the things he experiences in California while his wife and daughter at home seems to have fallen prey to a strange cult which goes into the complete opposite rejecting all modern technology and focussing on basic needs and a reduced life on a farm outside town. While worrying about his family, Patrick cannot see clear and lacks support in his mixed feelings about the incidents on the film set.

Cassidy is first presented in a way you would expect a young superstar to behave. However, her personality turns out to differ heavily from the public egocentric diva image thus revealing one of the few critically thinking and actually caring people.

Even though the idea behind the plot is great and alluring, it was hard for me to really indulge in the novel. Yet, I liked Kleeman’s style of writing and will surely look out to read more of her.

Megan Abbott – The Turnout

Megan Abbott – The Turnout

Ballet has always been the world of sisters Dara and Marie. Their glamourous mother, a former ballet soloist, had kept them close and after the parents’ death, they have taken over the Durant School of Dance together with Dara’s husband Charlie who had become a family member as a boy. When a fire destroys one of their studios amidst the preparations of their biggest annual event, the performance of “The Nutcracker”, they hire Derek, a seemingly highly skilled contractor, to have everything restored as quickly as possible. Yet, they do not have the least idea of whom they let into their studio and lives. The fire was just the beginning of a series of dreadful events which will change their lives forever.

“No one wanted to face the truth. That every family was a hothouse, a swamp. Its own atmosphere, its own rules. Its own laws and gods. There would never be any understanding from the outside. There couldn’t be.”

Megan Abbott is a master of foreshadowing and again has created unique characters who reveal their full potential slowly throughout the novel. The title – “The Turnout” – is quite ambiguous but perfectly fits in several respects. A turnout is a demanding move in ballet and that’s what the sisters expects from their élèves. Secondly, it is also the moment where you are confronted with different directions and have to decide for one. Thirdly, it is a clearing out, an act of cleaning what has been spoilt. All three can be found in the novel. The preparation for the ballet performance is at the centre when the sisters get into a deep conflict in which they decide for different roads and, in the end, the initial state is restored and all disruptive factors are cleared. At least they might think so.

The novel moves at a rather slow pace but this adds the creepy atmosphere which makes the plot quite authentic. The threat does not come in in an obvious way, it is sneaking into their lives with a friendly and smiling face like a predator who observes his prey, gets closer and tenaciously waits for the perfect moment to attack.

It is also a novel about family structures and sisterly bonds. Quite obviously, their mother’s way of keeping the girls away from other children, of treating them in a special – or rather: strange – way to form them according to her own ideals cannot be healthy. Dara and Marie become like two sides of one coin, an inseparable unit which even cannot be divided by Charlie who integrates into their union. No wonder, at a certain point in life, such a bond is threatened and the lack of experience with people makes them even more vulnerable than others might have been.

From a psychological point of view, an outstanding novel which is also full of spine-chilling suspense.

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Lisa Taddeo – Animal

Joan flees New York to California after he lover Victor shot himself publicly in front of her. With little money left, she finds a small place to stay and she also finds the woman she was looking for. Alice, whom she had tracked online over all those years. She thinks back to what her life had to offer so far, her mother who was unable to love her, her father whom she admired childishly. Both have long been gone. Joan can run, but somehow her bad luck follows her, she seems prone to attracting all kind of evil and so it does not take too long until it comes back to her.

Lisa Taddeo made her debut with “Three women“ which I already liked a lot. In her latest novel, too, complicated relationships between men and women are central to the story’s development. The narrator herself is unable to love unconditionally, she needs to have the upper hand over her lovers, yet, this presumed precaution measure fires back and somehow she is stuck in the role of the kid who is longing for being loved. She is addressing her account of the events to somebody, yet it takes until the end for the reader to understand whom she tells about her life.

From a psychological point of view, Taddeo has created quite interesting characters. Violence and love are constantly opposed and they seem not to able to exist without each other. Joan’s grandmother has been raped, a dramatic experience of violence, yet, we do never learn about what this did to the woman. On the other hand, Joan’s mother does not seem to be a direct victim, yet, she reacts quite strongly and refuses her daughter the love she craves for. The women in her family are no good role models, yet, her father, too, does not provide a good example of how to behave, especially at critical moments in his life. As a consequence, Joan is unable to lead a relationship at eye level and feels the need to protect herself from the things that might happen.

Thus, as a grown up, Joan replicates what she has seen as a kid and ignores the effect this might have on others, only when she is confronted with a kind of mirror, her genuine feelings offer her another way.

“Animal” is all but an easy read, yet, it offers a lot of food for thought and raises important questions concerning central human emotions and behaviour. I am not an expert, however, I would classify Joan’s thinking with all those flashbacks as symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder which is highly likely from her family’s history. In this respect, the author very successfully displays the impact of traumatic events on untreated children.

Taylor Jenkins Reid – Malibu Rising

Taylor Jenkins Reid – Malibu Rising

It started out as a love story, but Mick Riva wasn’t made for loving only one woman, he was first of all made for a career in the music business and that’s what he did. His wife June though was made for loving but since her husband was absent, she only had to love her kids. The first born Nina, and the second, Jay, and the third who wasn’t her kid at all but she couldn’t just turn her back on Mick’s son Hud who was abandoned by his mother. And last but not least Kit, born long after her parents’ relationship had already fractured several times. While Mick was away, June took care of the kids until she couldn’t anymore, then quite naturally, Nina took over. Now, as a successful model, she is preparing for the legendary annual Riva party in her home in Malibu. Even though they have been having this party for many years, this year will be different and at the end of the night, nothing will be the same anymore for any of the Riva family.

I totally adored Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel “Daisy Jones & The Six“ which was totally lively and got be hooked from the first page. He latest book “Malibu Rising” had exactly the same effect. Her protagonist Nina, whose day of the big party is told alternatingly with the family’s story, is a strong character in a very special way. Her most striking feature surely is to take over responsibility and to do what needs to be done while totally forgetting that she, too, has the right to live. But instead of thinking about herself, she simply cares for the people around her, especially her younger siblings.

While everybody is preparing for the party, the biggest event every summer which is not to be missed by anybody important, Nina strikes a balance of her life so far. She made the maximum of the rather poor baseline. She has become one of the most demanded sports models, idolised by masses of people, her younger brothers are just starting their careers and also the baby of the family is going to fledge the family nest and to make herself noticed and a name. Their father has only ever existed at the edge of their life, it was their mother June who put herself last to make her children feel loved and have a good life despite all the adversities. Now, however, seems to be the moment for a big change.

Another set of unforgettable characters who know what is important in life and underline that there is nothing that will bring you down as long as you’ve got the ones who love you around. Even though nothing could be further from my life than surfing, I liked the passages where the author describes how the kids feel in the water and how surfing provides them with an unknown feeling of freedom.

The perfect summer read which is not at all the light feel-good novel but much rather a great story simply to indulge in.

Simon Han – Nights When Nothing Happened

Simon Han – NIghts When Nothing Happened

The Changs live an inconspicuous life in Plano, Texas, Patty, the mother has a demanding job in the tech industry, Liang, the father looks more after the house and their two kids Jack and Annabel. Despite their Chinese background, they assimilate and fit in quite well until misunderstanding sets in motion a chain of events which throws the already fragile family equilibrium totally out of balance.

Simon Han’s novel “Nights When Nothing Happened” tackle different tricky topics such as moving to another country and trying to fit in, finding your identity when you grow up between different cultures, trying to make a living and having a family at the same time and, most of all, dealing with the fragile psyche of a child. Each chapter provides the reader with the perspective of another family member thus underlining that even though you might belong to the same family, there are always things left unsaid because they are unutterable or because you cannot find the words to express yourself, in the case of the children in the novel: because they are too afraid of saying or doing something wrong.

It wasn’t easy for me to sympathise with the characters, they were too far away from my life and unfortunately the novel, though wonderfully narrated, couldn’t bring them closer. Understanding their individual struggles and fears though was easy due to the insight in the characters’ thoughts. Many noteworthy aspects and without any doubt interesting characters, yet, somehow the novel did not really move me.

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

Claire Fuller – Unsettled Ground

When Dot dies from a stroke at the age of 70, she leaves her twins Jeanie and Julius behind. Even though both of them are well in their adulthood, they still behave like children and therefore are totally overstrained by finding their mother dead on the kitchen floor. The three of them have lead a decent life at the small cottage since their father and husband Frank was killed in an accident, they have never needed much and could rely on their garden and the small amount of money Julius could make in providing a helping hand with all sorts of craftsman jobs. Yet, Jeanie and Julius do not have much time to grieve before all sorts of people turn up from the village claiming money their mother allegedly had borrowed. They can hardly believe it; this does not fit to the image they had of Dot. But this is just the beginning, without the strong and determined woman in the house anymore, the twins become an easy prey and soon have to face an unexpected problem: they are being evicted from what has been their home for decades.

A couple of years ago, I already enjoyed Claire Fuller’s novel “Swimming Lessons” which presented complex characters and a challenging family structure. In “Unsettled Ground”, too, the reader is confronted with a couple of highly interesting characters and an all but usual family construct which slowly unfolds its real tragedy in the course of the novel. Neither Jeanie nor Julius or any other character is easy to sympathise with, the world they have created for themselves is undoubtedly quite unique and takes some time to understand.

The novel has been longlisted for the 2021 Women’s Prize for Fiction which is nevertheless easy to understand. It presents two characters at the critical point in their life when all they have known is threatened, when everything is about to fall apart and when all they have taken for granted and believed to be true has to be reassessed. Jeanie and Julius have a strong bond which nevertheless does not hinder them from coping with the threats they face totally differently.  Ultimately, it is the struggle of survival in a hostile world, the attempt to build a life on the broken pieces of the truths they have held to be true but turned out to be all but that.

Admittedly, reading “Unsettled Ground” makes you feel depressed more than once, the story is hard to endure at times. Yet, this surely can be attributed to the author’s skill of transmitting atmosphere and mood in a brilliant way. It’s one of those novels one does not really want to dig deeper in while at the same time one can hardly put down once started.

Yaa Gyasi – Transcendent Kingdom

Gifty has always been second, her brother Nana was the beloved child of the parents, as a sports prodigy all eyes of their Alabama hometown have been on him until an injury and later a drug addiction took his life. Gifty’s mother has never recovered from the loss, her father had left the family even before to turn back to his home country Ghana. Even as an adult and highly successful scientist, Gifty longs for the mother’s recognition which she never gets. Also religion, with which she grew up does not really offer any condolence. How should she ever be able to love when she herself has never experienced being loved?

Yaa Gyasi‘s “Homegoing“ was already a novel I thoroughly enjoyed, “Transcendent Kingdom“, however, is much stronger in the way the protagonist is portrayed and in conveying this fragmented family‘s critical emotional state. The mother struggling to make a life in a foreign country and thus enduring open racism from the people she works for; Gifty being raised to be silent with a strange idea of how to be a good girl and to follow ideals marked by a religious understanding which limits her in every respect.

“Nana was the first miracle, the true miracle, and the glory of his birth cast a long shadow. I was born into the darkness that shadow left behind. I understood that, even as a child.”

Gifty loves her brother, admires him and even though, as a child, she cannot understand what happens to him after his injury, he is the one who drives her to work her way up in the scientific community, to go into one of the hardest disciplines in order to understand the human brain and to contribute to scientific finding and development.

“Like my mother, I had a locked box where I kept all my tears. My mother had only opened hers the day that Nana died and she had locked it again soon.”

Gifty’s mother suffers from depression which makes her unable to care or love her daughter. She does not see what the girl achieves, how hard she works and how much she suffers from the lack of emotional care. It is a pity to see how she neglects the girl who retreats into her own world and which makes her unable of bonding with others, no matter if on a friendships or a romantic basis.

A wonderfully written novel, highly emotional and going to the heart.

J. S. Margot – Mazel Tov

J.S. Margot – Mazel Tov

Even though the interview went rather poorly, the Schneider family employs the narrator as a tutor for their four children. The two boys cope with school quite well, but the oldest daughter Elzira struggles and needs support. The children do not go to an ordinary school, just like the family is not the ordinary Antwerp family. They are Orthodox Jews and with her tutoring job, the doors to a completely new world open for the young student. Gradually, she does not actually become a member of the family but they grow totally fond of her and even when the kids have grown up, they not only stay in contact but support each when they are in need.

The Flemish journalist and novelist Margot Vanderstraeten narrates her encounter with the Jewish community at the beginning of the 1990s when she was a student. She is quite young, only a couple of years the children’s senior when she first enters their life and thus can only wonder about what she sees and learns about the family’s faith, the different types of Judaism and a life in her hometown of which she did not have the least idea.

She is confronted with a lot of contradictions and unbelievable concepts, however, she also learns that they can provide anchors in life and give orientation in the modern world. Over the years, she also understands why some Jews prefer to keep to themselves and why all of them always have a passport at hand. At times funny, at times pensive – the novel gives insight in an unknown world without judging any way of life or religion. It is a wonderful memoir which first of all shows how people can bond even though, at first, they could hardly differ more. By showing Jews not only in Belgium but also in Israel and the USA, she also underlines that all of them find their very own way of interpreting their religion and of uniting an old faith based on ancient rules with the modern world.

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

Austin Duffy – Ten Days

When his wife Miriam days from cancer, Wolf has to take care of their 16-year-old daughter Ruth whom he hardly knows since the couple has been separated for quite some time. Miriam had one last wish: to have her ashes scattered in the Hudson River. Thus, Wolf and Ruth leave London for New York where he also hopes his daughter can find a new home with his former wife’s Jewish family. They arrive at the holy season between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur; Wolf has never really been religious and also their daughter has not been raised to follow religious traditions. Yet, with Miriam’s believing relatives, conflicts lie at hand. They only seem to have one mission, yet, there is something else the father has to announce to his daughter.

Austin Duffy’s novel “Ten Days” tells the story of people who have to cope with the loss of a beloved mother and wife. Even though they have not been living as a couple anymore, Wolf’s memories come back when he shows Ruth where they met, where their first kiss took place and where everything began. It seems to be quite difficult for him to deal with his intelligent and at times rebellious teenage daughter, however, the more the narration advances the more questions arise about Wolf’s behaviour which becomes not only quarrelsome but strange.

I totally enjoyed the novel since the characters are lively drawn and really appear to be authentic in the way they try to make sense of Miriam’s death. Ruth is quite independent and strong-willed, when Wolf’s secret is revealed, however, we also get to know another side of her character.

Not a totally emotional read, much more a slow novel which makes you ponder.