Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Marie Aubert – Grown Ups

Sisters Ida and Marthe have planned to spend some days together at their cabin close to the sea where they will be joined by their mother and her partner. Ida is reluctant to go there, with her 40th birthday only a couple of weeks ago and still no father for prospective children in view, she knows that her window of becoming a mother is getting closer and closer. This is why she decided to freeze some of her eggs. Yet, it does not hinder her from negative feelings towards Marthe who, now pregnant and stepmother of beautiful 6-year-old Olea, seems – as always – to get everything she wants. Hard feelings accompany Ida and slowly turn their holiday together into a catastrophe.

I totally enjoyed Marie Aubert’s novel as I could easily sympathise with her narrator and protagonist. Additionally, there is some fine irony and humour in the text which make it a great read. The relationship between sisters quite often is all but easy and even as grown-ups, hard feelings and emotional injuries from the childhood can sit deep and hinder them from ever having a healthy bond.

Ida obviously is envious, her sister not only has a living husband but also a lovely stepdaughter and she’s pregnant. Even though Ida is a successful architect, she has never managed to establish a functioning relationship with a partner and feels lonely and somehow failed in life. Always being second, this is how she has grown up, no matter which achievements she reached, there was always Marthe who was ill and thus spoilt those rare moments of joy for Ida. Their mother does not seem to be aware of the difference she makes between the girls – yet, one has also to take into account that we only get Ida’s point of view which quite naturally is not only limited but highly biased.

“It’s not right That it should be so easy for others and so hard for me, I don’t get it, if there’s some sort of formula, a code that others know about, one they’ve known since they were young but which I’ve never quite grasped.”

Ida gets worked up about her sister and is willing to destroy her sister’s life when she is drunk one evening. This is rather tragic to observe and Ida turns into a pitiable character who does not realise that she will be even lonelier if she loses these last persons around her. She is aware of this but cannot act differently.

Marie Aubert’s debut is elegantly narrated, yet, the story leaves you with mixed feelings. It is joyful at times but the dysfunctional family is also an emotional challenge.

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.

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.

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.

Karin Smirnoff – My Brother

Karin Smirnoff – My brother

After years away, Jana returns to the Swedish village she grew up in. There is only her twin brother Bror left of her family. But as soon as she arrives, all the memories of her childhood come back. Her father, a brutal alcoholic who used to beat their mother and the kids, the mother who only ever told them to pray but never stepped in against the violence the kids had to endure. All those things Jana wanted to forget resurface, but there are also other things she wants to know after all this time: where is her daughter and who was Maria?

“I always assumed that something was wrong with me. The classic therapy answer was that I ended up in the same situation again and again in order to relive my childhood. “

Karin Smirnoff‘s novel lives on a very gloomy atmosphere. A snowstorm sets the mood on the very first page. Just as the fierce and merciless nature, the people also treat each other without too much softness in this remote area in the north. It is a story of violence and abuse, of adults looking away, not protecting children and a community which prefers to remain silent over stepping in. The result are scars on the outside and inside and two childish souls marked forever.

“All one can do is pray she said. And how we prayed. Childish prayers for help. “

Jana and Bror’s childhood is the most horrible story to imagine. Afraid of the father, every week hoping that he might die before returning to their home on Friday evening when he used to first drink and then hit whoever got in his way. The mother weak on the one hand, herself victim of constant beating, maybe having given up the hope for a better life, on the other hand, ignoring what her husband does to the kids.  Surely not a novel easy to read. Bror’s addiction and Jana‘s tendency to end up with men who show similar patterns like her father are the logic consequence.

Yet, there is more than the inner circle of the family, the whole village is full of secrets, things which are common knowledge but never told which Jana, now a grown-up and strong woman, uncovers.

To call the novel an enjoyable read would be totally inadequate, there is nothing to enjoy when reading about child abuse and domestic violence. However, the characters are authentically drawn and the dynamics within the village are interesting to observe.

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.

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

Avni Doshi – Burnt Sugar

Artist Antara has just been married when her mother Tara shows first signs of Alzheimer’s disease. With her mother losing her memory gradually, the daughter starts to remember what they both went through. The time when her father still lived with them, then, the time at an ashram where kids where more or less left to themselves while Tara was deeply in love with a guru, her time at a Christian, yet not so very philanthropic and humane, boarding school. As an adult, Antara learns that there are rules she is not aware of but which are highly important to others e.g. for her mother-in-law and which she better adhered to.

„I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.“

Avni Doshi’s debut novel has been shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, the first draft was written during a stay India and won the Tibor Jones South Asia Prize, all in all, it took her seven years to complete the book. The relationship between mother and daughter always remains the main focus of Antara’s thinking and her art since she is under a constant emotional pressure. Even though it is highly toxic, she cannot – of course – get rid of it.

The author’s observation and especially the way she describes the mother’s gradual memory loss are particularly striking. The contrast between tradition and a modern way of life, obviously present everywhere in India, is also powerfully depicted.

Having heard so much praise of the novel I really was looking forward to read it, yet, I struggled with the negativity. The relationship between mother and daughter, the mother’s neglect of her small child, the injustice Antara experiences again and again – it is not easy to endure. Maybe it just wasn’t the best time to read it – 2020 has offered by far enough negative news and after months of pandemic, who doesn’t slowly become depressed?

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.

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

Sigrid Nunez – What Are You Going Through

The unnamed narrator is visiting a friend with terminal cancer who is in hospital in another town. She stays with a retired librarian with a cat but her host is quite reclusive and they hardly have any contact during her stay. Between the visits, she ponders about other people in her life: her former partner of whom she attends a public speech on the dystopian future we are facing, her old neighbour who can hardly manage alone, a woman she met in her gym who went through drastic changes, each of them starting point for another in-depth reflection. Her encounters reflect the whole range of people and therefore also introduce pestering issues of our time: the way women are judged and how their position in society and in a family is seen, how we treat the elderly and – the most important aspect – how do we want to die and what will remain of us. Quite unexpectedly, her poorly friend asks her a favour which will target core questions the narrator cannot easily answer for herself.

Just as in her former novel “The Friend”, it is a minor event – then an abandoned dog, here a visit to the hospital – which initiates an interesting journey into the depth of human nature. The narrator’s experiences and encounters are analysed and questioned, it is an introspection which nevertheless is far from very individual and personal but, quite on the contrary, concerns everybody. Especially being close to a dying friend has a huge impact on her thinking, far beyond the question if we should rather ask “What are you going through” instead of “How are you”.

The core issue revolves around suffering and pain and the question how much a human being can endure. How do you go on living in a world which does not seem to have a future, at least not an interesting or desiring one. The plot is minimal, at times rather feels like a collection of anecdotes, but looking at it as a whole, you get an idea of the protagonist who is sad, to a certain extent disillusioned, but not grim. She is still capable of attachment and fondness, even though she knows that it won’t last this time. Every single word becomes meaningful and should be use with care therefore.

Repeatedly, Nunez also has her narrator share her reading experiences with the reader and thus transgresses the boundaries of genres once more. She certainly pushes the limits in many respects and engages the reader in thinking. One of the most interesting questions for me was the one rotating around the problem of what can be reported and by whom the act of narration should be carried out, especially when it comes to experiences of general interest. The narrator questions if there is even a language capable of conveying experiences adequately or if, in the end, all language must fail to authentically depict what somebody underwent.

Nunez’ language surely is plentiful enough to engage you in an interesting inner – and hopefully also outer – dialogue.

Zoe Lea – The Secretary

zoe lea the secretary
Zoe Lea – The Secretary

As a single mother with a highly sensitive 8-year-old son and a very tight financial situation, Ruth already has a lot to carry. When one morning she comes across Rob in front of the school where she works as a secretary, she cannot believe what she sees: the man who pretended to be single when she spent a night with him obviously is happily married with kids. Ruth is furious and so is Janine, Rob’s wife, when she realises what she is witnessing. Ruth made her biggest enemy with Janine, the one woman in the community who is great at networking and friends with everybody. The same day, the school gets a letter demanding Ruth’s lay-off because of how she behaved in front of children. But this is only the beginning of a totally nasty fight.

Zoe Lea’s novel is a real page turner. It is unbelievable what happens to Ruth who seems to be a caring mother who’d do anything for her boy and who only tries to live a decent life after the divorce. Nobody wants to believe her and everything is simply turned around making her appear to be to aggressor. The most awful thing is that you get the impression that money and power are more important than the truth and that those who are already at the end of the food chain hardly have a chance to be heard and taken seriously.

A fast paced novel that was hard to put down. I was hooked immediately and liked the development of the events, a downward spiral which once set in motion couldn’t be stopped anymore. With each chapter, Ruth’s actions became more drastic since she was pushed more and more in a corner and like a threatened animal, did not see another way out of the menacing situation. Yet, her character is not too obvious, I started questioning her more and more towards the end which, actually, I totally liked since I couldn’t be too sure about what to believe anymore.

All in all, very entertaining and enjoyable.